Wagner and Me, with Stephen Fry

 Stephen Fry is a rightly celebrated performer who manages to combine light entertainment with his unabashed celebration of intelligence and his insatiable curiosity. 

Venue: Cinema Nova, Melbourne Wednesday, 2 March, 2011
Wagner and MeStephen Fry is a rightly celebrated performer who manages to combine light entertainment with his unabashed celebration of intelligence and his insatiable curiosity. Until I saw this documentary, I felt I couldn’t get enough of the man. However, in Wagner and Me, the dominance of Fry’s personality (and his bad shirts) detracts from this reasonably informative exploration of the music and politics of the German composer. 
Wagner and Me is apparently an extended version of an hour long documentary made for the BBC, and the lower production values are evident in the beginning scenes with sweeping camera shots that made me feel a bit sick. Things settle down though, as self confessed Wagner tragic Fry breathlessly introduces us to preparations for the next production of The Ring Cycle at Bayreuth – the spiritual home of Wagner and the site of his famous purpose built opera theatre.
What follows is essentially a course in Wagner for Dummies – justifiable on the grounds that most theatre-goers know little about this ground breaking composer, except perhaps that his operas are ridiculously long, and that Hitler was his number one fan. And I am always pro to any attempts to educate the masses in the magic of my favourite art form. 
A narrative tension is created by the conflict between Fry’s passionate love of Wagner’s music, and the well documented facts of Wagner’s (and his heirs’s) anti-Semitism – which Fry, having lost relatives in the Holocaust of WWII, feels duty bound to explore. The documentary gets really interesting when we are shown photos of Hitler appearing at a window of Bayreuth, waving to hoards of delirious fans; and scenes of Nuremburg, where we learn that Wagner sing-alongs often preceded the famous Nazi rallies. Another powerful moment is when Fry talks to a survivor of the Auschwitz, a cellist whose survival depended on playing for officers of the SS. 
Behind the scenes peeks at rehearsals, both at Bayreuth and at a very interesting looking production of the Ring in St Petersburg, are interspersed with the historic and political, but most of the music scenes are too short to be really satisfying. While  the shrieking women of the Valkyries are always a hoot, the musical  highlight is a whole scene played on piano which demonstrates the magic of the “Tristan Chord”, and the way that Wagner uses an unresolving musical motif to keep the audience emotionally on tenterhooks until the final chord – some five hours later. 
Fry’s love of Wagner’s music, and his delight at being backstage in the master’s theatre, are infectious. But he sabotages identification with this enthusiasm through constant self-deprecatory remarks – “You must think I’m mad” being a common one. As well as being intensely annoying, it destroys the mood that has just been set up – maybe by some sublime music – and here we are in Stephen Fry land again. God knows we get enough of that on the box every week. 
This doco could have been, in someone else’s hands, an interesting exploration of whether it is possible to separate our appreciation of a genius’s creativity from our knowledge of their politics. Unfortunately, it comes across here as lip-service by Fry to counter the criticism that his slavish devotion to Wagner’s music will inevitably provoke.
Opera Australia recently announced, to great fanfare, they will be mounting a new production of the Ring Cycle in Melbourne in 2013. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, Wagner and Me is a good place to start. But, honestly, I’d wait for the DVD.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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