Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Lion roars for Wagner

In a week when the flood waters threatened Venice more dramatically than at any time during the past two decades, here is John W Barker, author of Wagner and Venice, on the composer's relationship to that great city:

The Lion of St. Mark, eternal symbol of Venice, has witnessed a lot over the centuries, good and bad, and even since the fall of the Serene Republic in 1797. All the tourists might not think so, but the Lion has had some fun even since then. He has actually taken a shine to some of the many foreigners who visit. One in particular, a funny chap named Richard Wagner.

Short and stubby, with an ego at least double-sized. And opinionated! But, you know, a genius, too. A great composer, and lots more. The Lion first got to know some of Wagner's music when the Municipal Band played a few arrangements. Then the Lion heard some of Wagner's full operas. The Lion loves opera -
after all, his city of Venice almost invented it as a form of public entertainment in the sixteenth century, and built the first permanent theaters for it.

Sure, the Lion didn't like Wagner himself too much at first. The guy came to Venice the first time in 1858 and spent some months there. Gloomy fellow, keeping to himself, not caring that the Lion had an Austrian muzzle at the time. But during that stay, Wagner composed the middle act of what the Lion was informed was one of the greatest of all operas. Though German, of course. Wagner came back for five more visits, eventually bringing with him his new wife, Cosima - now there was one tough lady! - and their children. At first they were just passing through, but the Lion was pleased to see that Wagner quickly came to love the Lagoon City. Cosima dragged her husband to art galleries, and they walked and gondola-ed about, while Wagner spouted his endless pontifications. Venice really got to Wagner, the Lion noticed. And Wagner even rented the facilities of the glorious Fenice Theater and Music Conservatory to conduct his major student work, one of those Germanic symphonies.

But then, on that last visit, Wagner suddenly died, in that grand old Palazzo Vendramin where he and his family were lodging. The Lion by then had recognized what a truly famous and important chap this Wagner was, and wanted to keep his body in Venice, or at least make a big splashy send-off to his remains. Well, the composer's corpse was quietly taken back to Germany for burial, but soon the Lion realized that Wagner had nevertheless left something of himself and his art to Venice. Just two months after the composer died, a visiting German company gave a fully staged production of that cycle of four operas, The Ring of the Niebelungen, at the Lion's beloved Fenice - honoring the theater and the city with the first such show of it anywhere in Italy. OK, in German, but what a blast! The Lion was now a true Wagnerian convert. And what fun to watch the circus as all the critics decided what Wagner's music meant for Italian music and how it affected Italian opera-lovers!

It didn’t stop there. That Municipal Band really took up the composer's cause in the city. Its leader, that brave little Sicilian with the Neapolitan name, Calascione, who had conducted for Wagner and had won his respect, became a real booster - giving concerts right under the Lion's twitching nose in the Piazza San Marco. Pretty soon, there was an annual commemoration on the day of Wagner's death. Those went on for decades, and that famous American lady in Paris, the Princesse de Polignac, even chipped in some cash to support those events. But the Lion wanted still more. Under his inspiration, some of the foreign residents in the city arranged to have a fine bust of Wagner set up in the Public Gardens. The Lion had to allow good Italians to set up an adjacent bust of Verdi, the following year, to satisfy national honor. So the Lion found in that daring egotist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, and some of his foreign friends, just the ones to create and set up a memorial plaque on the Canal wall of the Palazzo Vendramin, as a final riposte. Other markers, too. A plaque at the Lavena CafĂ© where Wagner liked to take his kids for sweets. And a marker outside the street entrance to the Vendramin. No other foreigner has acquired as many monuments and markers in Venice as has Wagner.

Of course, there were slights along the way. That silly strutter, Mussolini, and that evil dictator, Hitler, first met in Venice, and they never bothered to pay the slightest attention to the Wagner associations of Venice and the Vendramin. By now, however, the Lion has won over Venetians and Italians to appreciate Wagner's music. There is even a Wagner Association in the city, and although the Vendramin is now a part-year gambling casino, that Association has turned the room were Wagner died into a museum.

Yes, the Lion honors many other composers, like Gabrieli and Monteverdi and Vivaldi. But Wagner is special. Venice has stolen some of him from the Germans and made him a naturalized Venetian.

The Lion is still there, proud and undaunted, an unashamed Wagnerite. And Wagner himself is still there, too, a permanent part of Venice's mystique.

John W Barker's superbly evocative Wagner and Venice is available now from all good booksellers.

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