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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

Comments () | Archives (1)

My mind is open and filling at this point. I'm attending Wagner's Ring Cycle at the L.A. Music Center with the final production coming up Sunday.
It's an extraordinary and profound experience with moments of astonishing magnificence.

A week after the end of the Ring I'll see "Twilight in Venice" at the Kirk Douglas, so the images and experiences should still be fresh in my mind.

Wagner portrays Earth, in my opinion, quite accurately. The earth mother Erda delivers heroes but the gods' and the neiblungs' choice of power over nature means doom. She doesn't elaborate. She refuses discussion or negotiation. She is who she is and says what is so. And it is so. Just like our planet earth that delivers great treasures to us but doesn't negotiate terms when we choose power over nature and pollute beyond carrying capacity.

Woton's wife was called a nag in the L.A. review of Das Rheingold. That's today's culture demeaning women. Woton's wife is a goddess representing the laws of home and hearth, defender of contracts, defender of agreements. She promises and challenges Woton when he disregards his own laws out of greed and lust for power. She, like Erda, warns of dire consequences, and she, like Erda, is disregarded, to the downfall of the gods.

I don't see how this is disrespectful of women. Burnhilde is the heroine of this musical drama. Yes, Sieglinda was abused, used and mistreated emotionally but so was her twin brother.

I still have a lot to learn about Wagner, his work and the meanings behind his deep probing of the human condition. I can see why Hitler enjoyed Wagner. Wagner took on huge issues over vast territory and sweeps of time. Hitler attempted to model his days of power on the Roman Empire and wanted to build his own empire that would last a thousand years.
He even had his architect draw renderings of the great buildings of Nazi German as they would look as crumbling vine covered ruins a thousand years later.

Anais Nin, the gifted writer, struggled to discover what she could do after she was forced to flee to New York when the Nazis invaded Paris. She felt angry, frightened and helpless at the horrors the Nazis brought. She decided that the only thing she could do was, since the Nazis were destroying beauty, to keep creating beauty. Her thought was, despite the horrors of war, to keep pouring beauty into the world.

I suppose, if you are saying that Wagner meant "his" beautiful creations were the only source of salvation for the world, I would agree that this is a pretty extreme position to take. But I believe that continually creating beauty is what keeps us humans going and what makes life worth living.
Just like Nature works all year round, despite our machinations, in her attempt to bring Spring every year.

Wow. I didn't know I had so much to say! And I haven't seen the play yet!


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