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Wagner vs. Verdi
Picture format: 16:9 (widescreen)
Disc format: NTSC
Sound format: Dolby Digital 2.0
Region code: 0 (All Regions)
Audio Languages: English, German
Subtitles: English, French, Korean
ARTHAUS DVD 102192 [159:06]

As controversial as both Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi have been, the perennial debate about their aesthetics has recently taken shape in a series of six half-hour episodes that were originally televised in 2013. Those films have been collected in the documentary Wagner vs. Verdi, which is now available on disc in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. At the centre of the discussion is the conductor Christian Thielemann. His comments underscore the narration by Ronald Nitschke, as they explore the topic in six episodes as listed at the end of this review. In the individual contributions the directors include interviews with Riccardo Chailly, Hans Neuenfels, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, Gottfried Wagner, Gwyneth Jones, Rolando Villazon and others whose work has immersed them in the music of either or both Verdi and Wagner. The disc includes the option for either English or German narration and offers subtitles in English, French and Korean. Several trailers of other Arthaus videos are included, with the one on Richard Strauss and His Heroines particularly intriguing for the documentary footage it includes.

In fact, it is such images that make Wagner vs. Verdi useful, with historic elements presented clearly and brought into sharp focus through the clear narrative script that connects each installment of the documentary. While some of the information may be familiar to many interested in the topic, the first episode helps to shape the idea of a revolutionary composer or a work that might be regarded as revolutionary. Over a century after the deaths of both Wagner and Verdi, their once provocative works have become part of the music culture of the twenty-first century. In some cases the modern familiarity with such works as Tristan und Isolde or La traviata may have muted the ramifications of such scores. To present a courtesan as a heroine caught the attention of Verdis audiences, who would have known the equally thought-provoking novel that inspired it. Likewise, the unconventional love between Tristan and Isolde challenged conventional ideas of love and marriage bonds. Modern morality may permit such departures from convention but Wagners audiences would have perceived the implicit defiance.

The image of Wagner as revolutionary is no surprise but the treatment of Verdi in this documentary counters some of the ideas associated with famous composers. While Verdi might have struggled for recognition early in his career, his successes soon earned him a stability that was remote from other composers of his day. In the episode on Verdis World, it is possible not just to hear of Verdis commercial ventures but also to gain a sense of his land-holdings through the shots of the farms and related property that exist today.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Wagner reception occurs in The Wagner Religion. There Daniel Gerlach explores the sometimes extreme stances pursued by contemporary enthusiasts. By distinguishing fans from disciples, the director is able to discuss the strong feelings for Wagners music that may not be as intense for works by other composers. This fuels the support of performances and various Wagner-related exhibitions and related events, while also explaining the potent responses to new productions. The documentary also makes a point of discussing Wagners essays as part of the legacy, as well as the implicit connections with such a controversial work as Tannhduser. Yet questions remain unanswered about the ways in which Wagners music inspires devotees for whom his works go beyond enjoyment and become parts of their lives.

Likewise, the consideration of women in operas by Verdi and Wagner is another way to compare and contrast the two composers. With both, the sexual and, more importantly, sensual dimensions of the dramaturgy affect the works on stage and their perception. If Wagners ideal women seem at times unrealistic, Martin Betz is good to show the roots of his conceptions in reality. It is unfortunate that Betz discusses at length the character of Violetta without spending time with other women, like Lady Macbeth, Elvira in Ernani, and Leonora in Il trovatore. The prominent father-daughter relationships in Verdis operas are important, but so are the independent women who take risks within his works.

In addition to such ideological discussions, the documentarys section called The Chant offers an exploration of the performance side of the music of both composers. The challenges of Verdi and Wagner cross, as should be the case with opera, into the dramatic aspects of the scores. If a speech rhythm in a line from Verdis Macbeth fits the melodic line well, and the two fuse, it demonstrates the ways in which the score fits the dramaturgy. It should be no wonder for musicians to observe this but it is useful in this documentary to bring out the ways in which the dramatic text and musical line become entwined. Along with these aspects of Verdis music comes a consideration of the Wagner Voice Competition at Karlsruhe, in which young singers compete for recognition as aspiring specialists in the composers music. This perspective is nicely complemented by a discussion of the ways in which nineteenth-century performers met the challenges of the music of both Wagner and Verdi. While modern concepts of specializing in certain roles may not have been part of the aesthetic of the nineteenth century, the reality for twenty-first century performers is the prominence of Wagners and Verdis operas in modern repertoire.

This leads well to the final section of the documentary in which Christian Kugler explores the influence of these two composers on the music of succeeding generations. The acknowledged intuitive effect of music on human beings is implicit in this portion of the documentary. Yet Kuglers contribution seems amorphous, with clinical studies seeming grafted on, rather than integrated into the whole. It would have been useful to demonstrate the continuity between the two composers and later music, as composers pursued operas in the verismo style and also wrote atonal and dodecaphonic works. The vocal line that is so prominent with both Verdi and Wagner bears further consideration in light of the so-called neo-romantic style of the late twentieth century and the minimalist operas of composers like Philip Glass and John Adams. Even within those latter scores, the line is essential for conveying the text from written page to performance on stage.

Such quibbles should not deter those interested in the dichotomies between Wagner and Verdi from exploring the ideas presented in this documentary. Illustrated well with excerpts from various performances, Wagner vs. Verdi is a solid contribution to the appreciation of their operas by modern audiences, and the enduring values that exist in those works. The problematic aspects of both composers music will inspire more responses to their scores, as their works continue to be performed in the present century and, it is hoped, beyond. While the formulation of the title opposes the two composers almost academically, the works of Wagner and Verdi resist the preference for one over the other for the very reasons explored in this documentary.

James L. Zychowicz


(1) The Revolutionaries (Pepe Pippig, director) [26:38]
(2) Verdis World (Anna Schmidt, director) [27:12]
(3) The Wagner Religion (Daniel Gerlach, director) [26:35]
(4) . . . And the Women (Martin Betz, director) [26:29]
(5) The Chant (Thomas Macho, director) [26:35]
(6) . . . And the Effects of Their Music (Christian Kugler, director) [25:37]