Wagner's greatest roles

Arnold Whittall Mon 19th June 2017

How does it feel to encounter, at first hand, the Herculean demands made by Wagner’s most iconic roles? By Arnold Whittall

When the 31-year-old Richard Wagner completed Tannhäuser in April 1845, he had already taken a giant step away from Grand Opera conventions. Der fliegende Holländer, first staged two years earlier, had turned away from what, for Wagner, was the one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out dramatic world of Spontini, Auber and Meyerbeer, while not rejecting the more local, more German operatic traditions of Beethoven and Weber. In this context Tannhäuser, and the title-role in particular, seemed something of a reversal, if not quite to Spontini and Meyerbeer, then to Wagner’s own successful version of Grand Opera, Rienzi (begun in 1838, first performed in 1842).

In both Rienzi and Tannhäuser (again, in contrast to Holländer), the title-role is given to a tenor, seen by Wagner as the ideal sound for conveying his musical embodiment of flawed heroism. If Rienzi is primarily about the psychology of political ambition, Tannhäuser comes closer to Wagner’s own world in exploring the psychology of the artist in society. To be convincing, the singer tackling Tannhäuser needs to confront unusually demanding challenges. While he often seems to treat individuals, as in his dialogues with Venus, Elisabeth and Wolfram, like public meetings, Tannhäuser’s encounters with the real public (primarily in Act 2) serve to highlight his private, self-obsessed concerns. This poet is never at ease in either the private or the public arena, and the music Wagner invents to chart his decline and fall moves from almost hysterical eroticism (the ‘Hymn to Venus’) to melancholic despair (the Rome Narration). At least one celebrated tenor – Jon Vickers – found the role so distasteful that he refused to tackle it. Others have ruefully noted that Siegfried and Tristan are in some ways easier – musically and dramatically more rewarding, that is. And it has certainly never been easy for producers to find a style of staging that deals convincingly with the clashes between the real world of the Landgraf and his court on the one hand and the fantasy realm of Venus on the other.

Wagner’s next opera, Lohengrin, offers a very different confrontation between the real world of 10th-century Brabant and a realm that seems to transcend mundane reality – the Grail knights’ Monsalvat. If the determining quality of Tannhäuser is an all-too-human fallibility, that of Lohengrin is a godlike self-assurance. Both qualities are, in the end, more destructive than anything else, but it is understandable that singers warm more immediately to the lyrical poise that distinguishes much of Lohengrin’s part. More tenors seem at home with this than with Tannhäuser’s trials and tribulations, though some – René Kollo is one – have managed equal conviction in both, at least on disc. As singers might sometimes ruefully confess, Lohengrin is a role to tackle when your voice still has its youthful bloom and your career is poised to take off; Tannhäuser is best taken on when you are well-established and have nothing to lose. Basses, baritones and bass-baritones might also use this latter formula in relation to the great antagonistic pair in the Ring cycle – Wotan and Alberich.

It is a measure of the proliferation of Ring performances and recordings in the years since 1950 that complaints are sometimes heard that the Wotan sounds more like an Alberich, or even (though less commonly) that the Alberich sounds implausibly noble and godlike. Occasionally there are singers (Sir John Tomlinson has been a prominent example in recent times) who can seem as convincingly in character as both villain and hero – as Hagen or Wotan. It has also been argued that the noble, even sacerdotal vocal qualities that singers such as Hans Hotter or Theo Adam brought to the role of Wotan short-change those less savoury aspects of the character, like the deviousness which Wagner’s text relishes in Das Rheingold and Siegfried. On the other hand, no one wants to hear Wotan bidding a soulful farewell to his daughter in Die Walküre in tones that might serve equally well for Alberich’s ragings against fate.

That Wagner has endowed both characters with an unusually wide range of attributes – something which helps to explain the attractions of the roles to singers – is especially evident in their encounter in Act 2 of Siegfried, where adumbrations of both comedy and tragedy are starkly juxtaposed. In turn, a particular attraction of what is probably Wagner’s most highly regarded role for a bass-baritone – Hans Sachs – is the blend, not so much of villainy and heroism, but more that of ‘poet and peasant’, artisan and armchair philosopher. It takes special reserves of stamina for the singer to sustain the kind of relaxed good humour needed throughout the long third act of Die Meistersinger and then to assert benign but decisive authority in the final address, rather than projecting a desperate determination to last the course, and to deal adequately with those hair-raising high Es. A persuasive Sachs certainly needs to be more of a Wotan (or Wolfram?) than an Alberich, as the most memorable interpreters of the role on disc, from Friedrich Schorr to Gerald Finley, can testify. Wagner showed few if any signs of wanting to give his female singers an easier time than their male colleagues. Saintly submissiveness might be called for, suggesting a cliché-ridden acceptance on Wagner’s part of woman’s primary nurturing role, but this is usually onlythe starting point for a transformation which reinforces the decisive function of women in promoting and effecting dramatic resolution. Sopranos are well aware that there’s no point in thinking of tackling Brünnhilde if you quail at the prospect of launching those high Bs in your very first lines in Act 2 of Die Walküre. The part’s rhetorical range across three nights is phenomenal, although Wagner is usually credited with a shrewd awareness of the need to provide passages to be coasted through in the interests of husbanding resources, especially when the character is on stage for so long, as in Act 1 of Götterdämmerung. In the end, however, Wagner takes no prisoners and those singers (Astrid Varnay and Gwyneth Jones inevitably come to mind) who are the most successful are those who recognise that aesthetic refinement matters less than sheer visceral conviction.

Seductiveness might not be a major part of Brünnhilde’s armoury, but Isolde needs that quality as well as scornfulness in more or less equal measure. Whereas Brünnhilde is able to leave the stage to the orchestra at the end of The Ring, Isolde remains the still centre of what is seen and heard as the curtains close, and her ‘transfiguration’ manages to turn a tragedy of derangement and despair into blissful fulfilment. It is, or should be, a deeply disturbing experience – Wagner upending the most basic operatic and musico-dramatic conventions in music of overwhelming sweetness and light. You could say that Parsifal also ends with such music, and Wagner intended Kundry’s release from interminable life into death to be part of this sublime dramatic resolution. There is nothing more radical in Wagner’s work than his depiction of Kundry’s progress from almost breathless inarticulacy, by way of Act 2’s strategies of would-be seduction and enraged rejection, to her final emergence into submissiveness and silence.

Kundry may be more in the line of Venus and Ortrud than of Brünnhilde and Isolde, the catalyst enabling Parsifal not simply to grow up but to fulfil his masculine mission. In a sense, Kundry’s silence in Act 3 of Parsifal echoes Wotan’s in Götterdämmerung, where the image of his presence is a determining essence despite his physical absence. Sometimes producers insist on showing Wotan during The Ring’s final evening, just as they are sometimes determined to allow Kundry to survive throughout the priestly rituals at the end of Parsifal. But if Wotan cannot survive the conflagration that destroys Valhalla, no more can Kundry survive the arrival of the new world order that Wagner’s remarkably complex music dramas collectively portray. As today’s singing Wagner specialists recognise, the challenges and rewards of his achievement are unlikely to disappear from world stages any time soon.

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone magazine and the Gramophone Reviews Database, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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