(Charming cameo from Sir William Walton aside, the real interest starts after the first scene. Richard Burton plays a disturbingly plausible version of the person Wagner might have been so expertly that it's very difficult not to be convinced here by the echoes of what Germany would eventually become.)
He is music's most unavoidable topic. Love him or hate him (as I occasionally do), there is no getting around the man, the music, even the poetry: thinking about it, talking about it, finding his influence in other music, finding his influence in other art, listening to his music again and again in spite of constant self-remonstration that this music is ridiculous.
(If I told you that this music were about planning a wedding, would you think I was lying?)
Now my distaste for Wagner goes beyond the token stuff about antisemitism, though I believe it is very real and of supreme importance to understanding the nature of his music. From Haydn until Brahms, the main current of great classical music was designed to engage the listener the way a friend engages you in conversation. It was music written by emotional adults for emotional adults. This music might even command awe, but even the most dramatically minded music by Beethoven or Berlioz does not command your worship. It is music that insists that you treat it with some critical distance.
(The same civilization produced Wagner and Schubert. Amazing, no?)
Not so with Wagner. Wagner commands your adulation and wears down every last ounce of critical resistance you have. Just listening to his music is an act of faith in itself that requires you to give up half your day. His music is not meant to engage you, it is meant to infatuate you no less than Isolde's love potion or a spell from Kingslor. It replaces the adult conversing of Schubert and Mendelssohn with an adolescent primitivism meant to appeal to instincts far more ancient than the humanizing ones to which Bach and Mozart appeal.
(Difficult to imagine that this scene was not unceasingly echoing in Hitler's head as Berlin was being bombed to smithereens in 1945)
And yet, I just can't stop listening...when the performance is good at least. Lots of musiclovers think of Wagner as he only is in his bleeding chunks concert versions. Such listeners think of Wagner as the great composer of these earsplittingly bombastic individual moments if high romanticism. But that's not Wagner at his essence (though perhaps that is Tchaikovsky). The real Wagner is bombastic in a completely different way. Those tub-thumpingly loud moments are mere punctuation marks in Wagner operas. The real Wagner is to be found in those twenty or thirty minute singer monologues and duets in which characters endlessly, directionlessly yammer on about their particular situation in a manner that sounds like a second-hand plagarism of already turgid 19th century German philosophy. Give me Verdi's soap-opera melodramas over this any day of the week. Verdi is not much of a brain, but he's rarely ever a bore.
(the directness with which Verdi speaks to our emotions stands in stark contrast to Wagner. In Act II of Rigoletto, Verdi find's the perfect music to suggest that the main character is trying desperately to seem non-chalant in spite of a broken heart over his abducted daughter.)
Wagner pours all sorts of dramatic effects over this cud-chewing roadside philosophizing in an attempt to make his poetry anything but a crashing bore. But no matter how much excitement there is in the music, it feels almost completely divorced from the emotions the characters supposedly feel. Again, compare this to Verdi, who never ever wrote his own librettos and the difference is immediately apparent. The music in Verdi always reflects the character's emotions with astonishing clarity, whereas Wagner seems to have a tin ear for his character's emotions. It's almost as though Wagner viewed his characters as being 'beyond' emotion. Verdi was interested in human beings, Wagner was interested in archetypes. His music doesn't tell you what his characters feel, his music tells you what his characters are. For ambiguity is a cardinal sin in the Wagnerian world, which in the span of an afternoon is supposed to sum up all things great and small in the universe.
(Hitler once confided to associates that it was out of Wagner's final opera, Parsifal that he wanted to build a new German religion.)
...and yet I keep listening. Over and over again, like a junkie who waits by the dock for the next shipment of Afghan heroin I listen to Wagner like a horrible addiction I can't shake, committing hours of my life to his music and hours of his music to my memory. He has the same hold over me he's had over millions of others. He might bring out the inner animal or fascist or whatever else, but we all have our inner authoritarian who sometimes aches to be heard and will insist upon it in a way our more civilizing instincts never would.