Well, at least we got to hear Andreas Schager sing. This is no small satisfaction. Schager is currently one of the worldʼs leading Wagner tenors, and a Heldentenor at that, a noble hero from the first bars of whatever he happens to be singing. For the past six years his calendar has been jammed with nearly every lead Wagner role at major houses throughout the world, from The Met to the Vienna State Opera. All this from someone who grew up on a farm in the Austrian mountains with no exposure to or education in classical music, and didnʼt sing a serious note until he was 19 years old.

Andreas Schager © Národní divadlo
Andreas Schager
© Národní divadlo

Entering the world of Wagner was akin to a religious experience for Schager and, like any convert, he is eager to share his faith. This makes him a spiritual twin with Selcuk Cara, a German stage and film director, sometime opera singer and Wagner devotee. With the help of conductor Matthias Fletzberger and violinist Lidia Baich (Schagerʼs wife), the two men have created a project to bring their musical hero to the masses. Or at least to audiences that would not normally sit through a four- or five-hour opera. 

Faszination Wagner comes in two parts. The first offers a taste of Rienzi – the overture, and Schager singing the anguished prayer “Allmächtʼger Vater, blick herab!” – followed by an instrumental “fantasy” Fletzberger created from themes in Tristan und Isolde, featuring Baich as a soloist. The second half distills The Ring down to a series of arias by Siegfried, starting at the moment of his death in Götterdämmerung and then recapping key moments in the earlier operas – essentially a set of flashbacks focusing largely on familial relationships, which was the subject of Caraʼs doctoral thesis. 

Andreas Schager in <i>Faszination Wagner</i> © Národní divadlo
Andreas Schager in Faszination Wagner
© Národní divadlo

Ostensibly knitting all this together is a film – actually, a flood of often unrelated images – accompanying everything except the overture. These are projected on a massive 21-meter screen at the rear of the stage. The idea was to create an authentic Gesamtkunstwerk, and incidentally a multimedia presentation to hold the interest of the uninitiated. But it turns out to be more baffling than beguiling, mostly abstract nature images, usually superimposed in multiple layers. In the program book, Cara offers a lengthy description of the travails he and his crew endured in the filming, climbing mountains, traversing gorges, crossing perilous swinging bridges, sweating in Austriaʼs oldest smithy. But aside from some engaging close-ups of wolves at play, the finished product looks like something created in a studio, artful but not insightful, with little evidence of natureʼs grandeur.

That said, the screen does provide a few arresting moments. The best is an extended sequence of crashing waves, run in slow-motion and reverse. As a backdrop for Baich, standing in a spotlight at the front of the stage like a siren in a glittery silver gown, it provides a hypnotic visual counterpart for the Tristan fantasy and lustrous realization of the operaʼs sea setting. 

When Schager takes the stage, Cara's film footage seems almost entirely superfluous. He has everything – tone, technique, power, masterful control and riveting expression. From the moment he starts singing, itʼs clearly a world class voice, and only gets better over the course of the evening. Knowing the character and the tetralogy and the pivotal moments he and Cara have chosen certainly helps. But itʼs not necessary to appreciate the passion, exhilaration and sheer beauty of Schagerʼs singing.

Lidia Baich © Národní divadlo
Lidia Baich
© Národní divadlo

Credit Schager and Cara with inventive staging. The performers are on a platform surrounding a center pit holding the orchestra and conductor, and keep moving the entire time. This makes for a few awkward moments – Baich has to shimmy her way sideways across the entire stage in her first entrance – but eliminates the static mien of a recital, where even the most expressive singers are typically rooted to one spot. The kinetic presentation matches the motion onscreen and lends the production a nice flow. 

Still, by the programʼs end, it all seems a bit much. Fletzberger knows his Wagner, especially The Ring, in which the Prague State Opera Orchestra positively glowed. Baich is a skilled soloist with a soulful style. But the unquestionable highlight and strength of the evening is Schagerʼs singing, and the efforts to water down Wagner, dress up his music with visuals and otherwise make it more accessible ultimately get in the way. Or at least this is how it seemed at the first outing of this new project. Perhaps some time and weathering on the road will yield the new audiences the production aims to attract.

As for hardcore Wagnerites – well, at least we got to hear Schager.

***11