I first heard Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde nearly 30 years ago, hadn’t much of a clue what was going on, but the music gripped me like nothing else has ever done. I got to know all the mature operas very well, over time, but now many moons can pass by without hearing a note. However, once I almost reluctantly, and even with resistance, put one of his great dramas in the CD player, I am swept away all over again.
It’s intoxicating, heady, almost dangerous stuff, but that feeling of being swept away is like nothing else in all music.
I don’t care about Wagner’s family, his character, his beliefs, or what he liked for breakfast. I only care about the works. For me, they’re the greatest and most intense theatre pieces that I know, fathomless, inextinguishable and indestructible. I’ve seen them done superbly well and excruciatingly badly, and I regret more than I can say all the thousands of productions that I never saw and never shall see.
Many contemporary performances of Wagner seem wilfully to flout his intentions to the point where the music and theatre are almost divorced from one another. An “historically informed” production would be an interesting idea (as long as the orchestra also made use of gut strings, etc.) but it’s also worth bearing in mind that Wagner himself was a progressive thinker (at least concerning music and drama) who probably would not have approved of the petrification of his legacy begun by Cosima and continued by their descendants.
The question is whether whatever continuing relevance Wagner’s work has to other times and places is best served by attempting to reproduce his explicit instructions or not. For example, the action of Der Ring des Nibelungen takes place in a kind of mythical primeval past where time is only measured by the events of the story. Is this “timelessness” best expressed by using the pseudo-mediaeval trappings of its early productions? Or do we now have a different idea for what “timeless” might mean? (Wieland Wagner, for example, used the model of Greek tragedy.)
I wonder how many people, on hearing any piece of music for the first time, respond to anything other than the music itself? I bet they don’t usually go around asking whether the composer had beliefs they find repugnant, beat his wife, did even worse things to other people, had his music hijacked by other people who used it for nefarious ends, was a murderer, swindler, you name it … Obviously, if you start looking into the situation further you may well find out that sort of thing, but I doubt that initially it would colour your appreciation of any artist.