Due to technical difficulties, the below review of Tragedy of a Friendship first appeared at my personal Web site on November 3.
Photo: Wonge Bergmann.
Tragedy of a Friendship. Concept and director: Jan Fabre. Text: Stefan Hertmans. Music: Moritz Eggert and Richard Wagner. Set design: Jan Fabre. Costume design: Andrea Kranzlin. Lighting design: Jan Dekeyser and Helmut Van den Meersschaut. Dramaturgy: Miet Martens. Singers: Lies Vandewege (soprano) and Hans Peter Janssens (tenor). Performers: Silke Muys, Anne Maria Pajunen, Solene Weinachter, Gustav Koenigs, Nikolaus Barton, Annabelle Chambon, Cedric Charron, Ivana Jozic, Kurt Vandendriessche, and Fabienne Joanne Vegt. Orchestra: Flanders Opera Symphony Orchestra. Musical ensemble: Nico Declerck (harmonium), Jadranka Gasparovic (cello), and Lydia Kavina (theremin). Produced by Vlaamse Opera Antwerp and Troubleyn | Jan Fabre. Peak Performances at Montclair State University, November 1-3, 2013. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes (no intermission).
Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche were the two great Modernist messiahs of 19th century Germany, and their historical period was unique. Wagner was re-examining the medieval myths of the Nibelungs, Tristan, and Parsifal, and Nietzsche was resurrecting the Apollonian/Dionysian perspectives of the ancient Greeks, as Germany was experiencing a rapid growth of urbanization, industrialization, and nationalism. And, as was perhaps to be expected, you can’t keep two messiahs in the same room without considerable sparks flying. Their deep friendship lasted for only seven years, from 1869 to approximately 1876, when the opening of Bayreuth confirmed Nietzsche’s conclusion that Wagner had sold himself and his art out to the rising bourgeoisie. Nietzsche turned to the affirmation of the will-to-live and Dionysian excess, while Wagner continued to confirm himself in the Schopenhauerian resignation and renunciation which led to the final music dramas, particularly Parsifal.
As Jan Fabre’s extraordinary meditation on Wagner, Tragedy of a Friendship, suggests, more than philosophical differences led to the final break. Philosopher Nietzsche considered himself a composer (though he was not a very good one); composer Wagner considered himself a philosopher (though, again, he turns out rather poorly in contrast to Nietzsche). Along with this certain professional jealousy, Nietzsche dealt with abstractions on the written page, while Wagner was much more a practical, if expansive, man of the theatre. On a more personal level, Nietzsche quickly became tired of acting as a mere acolyte for Wagner’s operas, while Wagner became more impatient with Nietzsche’s growing irritability (writing to Nietzsche’s doctor, Wagner blamed this on the philosopher’s excessive practice of masturbation — tongue rather firmly in cheek, I think, since Wagner really had no way of knowing).
The relationship was one of the great messes of early Modernism, and in celebrating Wagner’s 200th birthday this year, Fabre has created a grand post-Wagnerian pageant of his own out of this mess, the friendship a thread which strings together meditations about all 13 of Wagner’s operas, from Die Feen to Parsifal. These are, as can be expected from Fabre, sensualist meditations — as both a visual and a theatre artist, Fabre is most highly concerned with color and especially texture, the texture of steel, human skin, and costume. With his collaborators composer Moritz Eggert and librettist Stefan Hertmans, Fabre traces Wagner’s career through a perspective informed by industrialism, popular culture (through projections of silent-movie title cards introducing each opera and historical photographs of earlier Wagner performances), and especially organized violence.
Sensual gender play is never far from Wagner’s music dramas and indeed was a primary component in their private composition (it’s now generally believed that, in the privacy of his study, the composer donned pink silk lingerie to create the operas), and it is this contemporary conception of the artist as death-haunted sensualist, yearning for intellectual and philosophical respectability in the modern bourgeois sphere, that drives Tragedy of a Friendship. Early in the performance, there is a violent, explicit rape scene which out-Kanes Sarah Kane, deeply disturbing to watch but indicative of the violent uses to which industrial modernity subjects the female body (this is embedded in the section on Wagner’s Die Liebesverbot, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure); two and a half hours on, this is echoed by a sequence in which red roses bloom from women’s vaginas. Wagner’s Romanticism (and perhaps Fabre’s), anachronistic in an age of practical bourgeois industrialism and nationalism, marks an end of one kind of violent world and the beginning of another. But this is all experienced, not intellectualized, in Fabre’s images that deny any kind of firm rational interpretation.
The bell jars that frame the stage on either side are reminders of Victorian scientism: dating from the mid-19th-century, these were meant to provide vacuum-sealed vessels for taxidermy and experiments requiring an airless environment. In Fabre’s scenography they become instead constantly mutating arenas for the display of bodies, light, color, and vapor: organic activity even within a vacuum which should prevent it. (The bell jars were built by Heinz Fritz, and the video effects therein designed by Luca Brinchi, Roberta Zanardo, and Santasangre.) This too is a sensualist reconsideration of the organic world: a suggestion that organisms bear a kind of physical activity even when the necessary ingredients for that activity, such as oxygen, are removed. This acceptance of spirituality, even in the Christian sense as Parsifal posits, is beyond the abstract rationality of philosophy and the instrumental rationality of science and only contemplatable through art.
The score by Eggert is a similar meditation on Wagnerian themes (a few of Wagner’s leitmotifs are quoted — from Tannhauser, Die Walkure, and of course the Tristan chord), but like Fabre’s reconception of Wagnerian staging, these are shorn of Victorian ornamentation even as the music toys with these ornaments: neither tonal nor atonal (and Eggert has a few interesting things to say about this in a recent blog post), his score, shared between a chamber trio and the full Flanders Opera Symphony Orchestra, is also more of a tone poem about Wagner’s music, as Hertmans’ libretto is a poem about Wagner’s librettos and themes. Singers Lies Vandewege and Hans Peter Janssens are particularly powerful presences among the twelve-person performance ensemble, and in their only duet (during the Tristan und Isolde sequence, in which they are hung from a steel horizontal pole permitting them no escape except towards each other) they provide the most sublime musical moment of the evening.
Fortunately Fabre has the wisdom to disclaim any status as a messiah of postmodernism himself. Tragedy of a Friendship is considerably leavened with comedy rather than wit — there are obvious, blunt nods to Apocalypse Now and cheerfully juvenile caricatures of both Wagner and Nietzsche — and, at the end, a bash at modernist pretension itself. In the dream sequence which closes Tragedy, Wagner and Nietzsche climb to the peak of a high mountain, where they become enamored of the echoing sound of their own voices yelling each other’s names. But the ensemble, now dispersed in the auditorium itself (and no doubt exhausted), begins to pelt the two Teutonic icons with a barrage of junk, requiring the musician and the philosopher to beat a hasty retreat from their Valhalla. So let me not praise Fabre too highly — but get a word in edgewise for the bravery, courage, and talent of the remarkable ensemble (their names are listed at the start of this review), who appropriately chase the two egotists from the stage which, properly, belonged to them.