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Theater review: 'Richard and Felix: Twilight in Venice' at the Met Theatre

April 7, 2010 | 10:49 am
Wagner Richard Wagner: humanist genius or egomaniacal racist?

A bit of both, it turns out, in Cornelius Schnauber's complex portrait of the composer in his final hours, "Richard and Felix: Twilight in Venice" at the Met Theatre. As a participating event in this year's multi-institutional Ring Festival LA, Schnauber's docudrama provides the wealth of scholarly background one would expect from the director of USC's Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies.

As a play, though, it's pretty cerebral going, assuming -- and pretty much requiring -- some familiarity with Wagner's work in order to appreciate the significance of its subject matter.

To examine central issues in Wagner's life -- in particular, his anti-Semitism -- Schnauber employs the familiar theatrical device of pitting the opinionated, belligerent Wagner (Don Deforest Paul) against the ghost of his one-time contemporary and rival, Felix Mendelssohn (Jerry Weil), his opposite in musical style and temperament.

It's an intellectual debate made (literally) in heaven. As a Jew and a popular composer, Mendelssohn was a poster child for Wagner's infamous 1850 essay railing against the corrupting influence of Jewish artists on German culture. His stance was later invoked by the Nazi regime to legitimize the Holocaust -- a fact that Mendelssohn, with the omniscience of the afterlife, reveals to the appalled but unrepentant Wagner.

Turning to Wagner's narcissistic, sometimes abusive relations with women, director L. Flint Esquerra supplies well-staged contrast between the stable domesticity offered by Wagner's wife (Addie Daddio) and the seductive appeal of his free-spirited, erotically charged mistress (Kelley Chatman).

Though Paul hasn't entirely wrapped himself in the character's skin, his self-righteous Wagner convincingly tries to distance himself from all accountability, invoking his deeply pessimistic philosophy of the more fundamental evil inherent in all humanity -- the destructive craving for power and profit that can only be overcome through great art (presumably by writing operas glorifying characters who destructively crave power and profit).

-- Philip Brandes,

"Richard and Felix: Twilight in Venice." Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood,  8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 25, $15. (323) 957-1152, 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Photo: Wagner

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