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Wagner in Paris

by Heather Leviston

As Wagner fever increases with the imminent arrival of Opera Australia’s reprise of its Ring season, the Melbourne Recital Centre and The Parlour have joined in with a more critical take on the Great Man. Subtitled “A Story of Prison, Ambition & Song” Wagner in Paris is a reminder that musical genius is no guarantee of personal virtue.

In the intimate setting of the Salon, Julie Houghton sat at a small table reading letters and responding to them with frowns, smiles and a busy quill. She is Natalie Planer, the secret, illegitimate daughter of Wagner’s first wife, the actress Minna Planer, who had been seduced at the tender age of fifteen. When Minna Wagner died in 1866 she bequeathed all her property to Natalie, including letters of great interest to Wagner’s biographer Mary Burrell, who discovered Natalie in a “poor house” for women.

The focus of the encounter between Natalie and a theatrically imagined Mary Burrell is the period between 1840 and 1842, when the Wagners and Natalie lived in Paris. As the aged Natalie, Houghton’s tone was acerbic as she described their poverty and Richard writing as “a penniless hack journalist and selling his songs”. There was plenty of humour in Houghton’s performance both in her beautifully enunciated commentary and subtle actions. While she supplied some of the “chronological truth” of the letters, marking out the dates, Eva Justine Torkkola played the part of the young Natalie with conviction. Animated and ranging around the space, she confronted the audience with the “truth” as revealed in the letters.

Towards the end of the performance Alice Tovey stormed in to address her younger and older counterparts and to shock those in the audience who had not heard the tale of Minna selling her most prized possessions only to have Richard spend almost as much by immediately buying silk underwear and other finery. She later stormed off with the angry prediction that “Richard Wagner will be nothing but a footnote in history”.

Some early songs by Wagner and one each by Meyerbeer, Chopin and Berlioz were interleaved between passages of narrative. With Eidit Golder an assured and responsive accompanist, baritone Adam Miller began with a confident account of “Der Tannenbaum”. Although his French pronunciation was sorely tested, his firm, rounded tone suited the drama of “Les Deux Grenadiers”. Karen van Spall had the lion’s share of the singing, her rich mezzo-soprano becoming more relaxed with each song. Her gentle treatment of “Dors mon enfant” from Wagner’s Trois melodies was particularly beautiful. Wendy Grose achieved some lovely soft high notes in Wagner’s “Les Adieux de Marie Stuart” although her bright soprano was a shade too operatic for Berlioz’ “Villanelle”.

There is no doubt that Wagner’s complexities can be confronting. Egomaniac, gambler, womaniser, irresponsible insensitive wastrel? It would seem so. But he was certainly a great deal more than that. Perhaps Der fliegende Holländer would have been invested with less emotional impact if he hadn’t been wearing those silk undies. Whatever the truth of the matter, this performance shed some light on an important part of Wagner’s life as he began his ascent to fame. Entertaining and informative, it also provided an insight into the lives of those close to him.

Reviewer Heather Leviston attended the single performance of Wagner in Paris on November 3 at the Recital Centre.

Regular Classic Melbourne readers will note that, on this occasion, a reviewer found herself central to the action on stage. This was Julie Houghton, exercising her dramatic talents in the role of Natalie Planer.

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