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The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan, Gerard McBurney

2011 July 18

Wagner for beginners seemed to be the idea behind the free preview of a new play about the grandiloquent composer, with illustrations from the Hallé

Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder. Tickets were allocated by ballot to draw in a new audiences. The Bridgewater Hall wasn’t exactly full of people wearing City shirts but the audience was a good deal younger than if they had been paying £50 a head.

Those who knew little about Wagner might have struggled with Gerard McBurney’s drama which cleverly stitched together a catholic collection of quotes by and about the composer. It lacked much narrative thrust, focusing instead on Wagner’s artistic philosophy.

What bound the piece together were the Hallé’s themes from the four Ring operas, from a solo haunting horn to a rhythm of the Rheingold anvils so clamorous they could have been a recording from Manchester’s industrial past.

McBurney pulled no punches. Wagner is a high priest of human feeling in its purest form. But he is also a self-aggrandising, sickly, super-sensitive, self-indulged neurotic. For all his heightened artistic sensibility he believed the ultimate ambition of a passionate wife should be to lose her identity in self-sacrifice to her husband. Post-Hitler it is hard to see all his romantic mythology as anything much more than preposterously pantomimic posturing.

Roger Allam was commanding as Wagner but Deborah Findlay and Sara Kestleman, as the two female chorus figures, had a trickier task switching between quotes from unannounced sources as disparate as Bakunin, Baedeker, Darwin, Dickens, Grimm, Liszt, Nietzsche, Scohepnhauer, Tchaikovsy and Wagner’s wives, Minna and Cosima. They didn’t so much lose the plot as have no plot to lose.

But the music was another thing. After the play the Hallé launched into Act III of Die Walküre with a group of Valkyries you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. They had tremendous immediacy and urgency. You could see Wotan coming in their eyes, and hear him in voices of such power that you felt afterwards that you’d been run over by a train.

Yvonne Howard was a touching Sieglinde. And Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde had the hall holding its breath as she gave the unborn hero the name of Siegfried. Egils Silins as Wotan was not sufficiently fearsome for a vengeful god but torn and tender as a disappointed father. The brass were imposing and the cor anglais beautiful. Wagner beginners could do much worse than start here.

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