Wagner Notes

Wagner’s Theatre: In Search of a Legacy by Patrick Carnegy, Cambridge, UK.: The Lutterworth Press, 2024. 171 pp.

Wagner’s Theatre: In Search of a Legacy by Patrick Carnegy: The Lutterworth Press, Cambridge, UK

It is difficult to know how to take this book. The title suggests it will be about Wagner’s theatre and the author’s name instantly catches one’s attention, as 18 years ago Yale University Press published his Wagner and the Art of the Theatre, the most comprehensive history of Wagnerian stage production in English. The only flaw of that otherwise excellent volume was its total silence on stage interpretations in the late 20th and early 21st century, an especially problematic but also highly productive period, which has revealed an almost inexhaustible trove of meaning in Wagner’s music dramas. While one might have hoped that the silence might have been broken in this more recent publication, it was not.

In fact, this handsomely produced volume is a retrospect of Carnegy’s writings and talks over the last 50 years, during which he has worked for several of the most salient UK newspapers and magazines as critic and editor and for several years served as dramaturg at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. The first two sections of the book, about half its reading length, are devoted to Wagner. Some of the essays add significantly to material included in Wagner and the Art of the Theatre: in particular, his discussion of Pringsheim’s comments on Wagner’s stage rehearsals of the Ring and his enthralling exploration of the intricacies of the process whereby Hoffmann’s original sketches for the sets of the Ring have only recently come to light are greatly to be welcomed. More substantial are the chapters on the Mahler-Roller production of Tristan und Isolde in Vienna in 1903 and “Reinventing Wagner after Hitler,” both of which are appearing in print for the first time.

Information on the Vienna Tristan has been difficult to come by. It has been widely hailed as a milestone in the production of Wagner, primarily as it is the first production that displays the influence of Appia. That is not precisely Carnegy’s reading; he pays more attention to how Roller, escaping from the romantic-realism of Carlo Brioschi, employed both his understanding of how space gives meaning to drama and his exploitation of the color symbolism of the Secessionists, both in stage and lighting design, to produce something unheard of in his day, a totally novel approach to designing for Wagner. This finely nuanced account is one of the best I have read on the details by which the Gesamtkunstwerk achieves its subtle and seamless effect. The chapter on the aftermath of Hitler surveys the stage productions of Wieland Wagner, Herz, and Chéreau, and Syberberg’s film of Parsifal. Carnegy’s opinion on the work of Chéreau in particular, has shifted. His initial discussion of Chéreau’s Ring in an earlier chapter, “Damming the Rhine,” is quite negative in its comments, but they refer mainly to the earliest performances of Chéreau’s cycle. After seeing the “improved” version on DVD, he clearly recognizes the epochal significance of this Ring, which leads him to recognize two dominant modes of staging and design in post-Romantic Wagnerian production, the symbolist tradition stemming from Appia and the alienated theatre of Bertolt Brecht. He does not, however, dwell on the importance of this dual praxis, but the two approaches imply radically different attitudes toward life and the very fact that Wagner’s works can absorb and be understood through such dissimilar approaches gives testimony to the richness of his dramas and their centrality in modern theatre.

This could have served as an ideal launchpad for a lively discussion of Wagner in the contemporary theatre, but instead in the second part of the book Carnegy chooses to abandon the theatre and Wagner almost entirely and devotes the space to four highly informative and lively written essays on key conductors of the 20th century – Karajan, Toscanini, Klemperer, and Solti – but with no discussion of their distinctive contribution to Wagnerian interpretation; two highly informative summaries of the travails of the ROH and ENO in recent decades; and an enigmatic interview with Michael Tippett on his operas. The main purpose of the volume is clearly to provide a retrospect of Carnegy’s vital career, not to determine Wagner’s legacy. Certainly, there is no discussion of Wagnerian production over the last fifty years, except for a single mention of Stefan Herheim. Yet Carnegy should be the ideal author to explore this. In his discussion of the Mahler-Roller Tristan he applauds the directors’ “right to interrogate a work of genius and come up with answers undreamt of by its creator” (p.74) and elsewhere he observes that each age finds its own anxieties in Wagner. Our own age has certainly done this and while not all of us may enjoy, or even like the direction of Bieito, Kosky, Carsen, Konwitschny, Neuenfels, Serebrennikov, et al, they have injected Wagner’s music dramas with new energy and ensured that today they flourish. Carnegy’s thoughts on them would have been welcome.


© Wagner Notes, July 2024, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Simon Williams,

Professor Emeritus in the Department of Theater and Dance, University of California at Santa Barbara, lectures widely on theater and opera and was the Society’s Bayreuth lecturer from 1998 to 2000.