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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