Tony Palmer’s TV Series “Wagner” is Majestic.

Richard Burton in Wagner.

Richard Burton in Wagner.

It’s hard watching Tony Palmer’s magnificent biopic of Wagner to avoid thinking, they don’t make them like they used to. Clocking in at just under eight hours, it was made in 1982 but has been re-mastered and re-released as a 10 part TV series.

Richard Burton finally got given the opportunity to act in something worthy of his prodigal talent. It is as they say the role he was born to play. The natural disdain he had for the whole grubby business of acting is used to perfectly convey the disgust and impatience that Wagner had for the world in general.

And along side him? John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Lawrence Olivier – the only time they shared the screen together –  Vanessa Redgrave, Marthe Kelle, Corin Redgrave, Joan Plowright and Gabriel Byrne.

Last Tango In Paris.

Last Tango In Paris.

The whole thing is shot by the regal Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer on The Conformist, Last Tango In Paris, Apocalypse Now, One Form The Heart and The Last Emperor. It looks ravishing.

And in to all that mix there’s the figure of Wagner himself. Unspeakably arrogant, dizzyingly self-centred, and disgustingly anti-Semitic, he was convinced that he was the best dramatist since Shakespeare and the greatest composer who ever lived.

It’s because he was indeed both that he’s ended up being such a contentious, not to say divisive figure.

In a word; can artistry, any artistry, even that kind of unrivalled genius excuse that sort of unpalatable behaviour? What’s more important, what you do, or what you are?

Richardson, Olivier and Gielgud in Wagner.

Richardson, Olivier and Gielgud in Wagner.

But we’re not here to talk about the man, but about the TV series. And if ever there was music to give an 8 hour TV series weight and grandeur, it’s Wagner’s. And what a life he somehow found time to live.

Wagner had an unrivalled appetite for other people’s money and wives, and a need for love and recognition that can only be described as pathological.

Ludwig's castle at Neuschwanstein.

Ludwig’s castle at Neuschwanstein.

He was a central figure in the revolutions that threatened to sweep through Europe in 1848. After eventually being adopted by the fanatical King Ludwig of Bavaria, he custom built his own opera house  at Bayreuth where he directed (rather than conducted) the premier of his 15 hour plus Ring cycle. The usually dour Schopenhauer scribbled in the margins of the first Act of Siegfried “Finally!”, after brother and sister had eventually kissed.

The opening nights were watched in 1876 by musical titans Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Bruckner, and Grieg as well as his one time friend Nietzsche.

Coppola's One From The Heart.

Coppola’s One From The Heart.

In between all of which, he blithely stole Cosima, the wife of his close friend Claus Von Bulow, and the daughter of his tireless champion, the brilliant piano virtuoso Liszt. And yet both men continued to vigorously support him. And on it goes; betrayal, opulence, vanity, politics, sex and always drama. Perpetual conflict. And all of that incredible music.

To the credit of everyone involved in this landmark series, Wagner neither avoids nor sensationalizes its subject’s contradictions. It has one of his friends sum him up thus:

You take everything from your friends. Their money, their wives, their love.

And without a trace of irony, Burton replies:

What are friends for?

It’s hard not to conclude that an actor (or director) today would feel the need to editorialize a line like that. But Burton refuses to give anything away. He’s perfectly and inscrutably matter of fact.

What’s so wonderful about the series is how comfortable it is with the ambiguous feelings it has for the man himself. Wagner was a monster. But if he had not have been, he never would have had all of that demented passion to funnel into his music. It is precisely his monstrosity that renders his music so intoxicating.

Wagner is on Sky Arts 2 – and they often keep their programmes on a loop. See it.

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