Richard Wagner bi-centenarian. Facts of interest: Wagner and Riga

Richard Wagner bi-centenarian. Facts of interest: Wagner and Riga
F64 . Richard Wagner's baton
21-05-2013 A+ A-
The world celebrated 200th anniversary of German musical giant Richard Wagner’s birth on Wednesday, May 22. In 2013, Wagner is globally celebrated in the most prestigious opera houses and concert halls and, of course, in the cities where he lived and worked in his lifetime, and Riga is one of those.

Wagner arrived in Riga, burdened by debts, and spent two years in town as the chief conductor of City Theatre. Wagner’s presence in Riga is, both, shrouded by myth and rich in unique biographical details, several of which we offer here to honor the Riga-period of the outstanding composer.

1. Wagner and Bolderāja

Richard Wagner came to Riga, aged 24, in 1837. He arrived by sea from Konigsberg on a trade ship, which moored at Bolderāja. This destination had left an unpleasant impression on him as he had been forced to explain himself to Russian officials there. As Latvian musicologist Mikus Čeže revealed in his video interview for Goethe Institute, advised by acquaintances, composer returned to Bolderāja again to observe the ice-break on Daugava.

2. At least 20 operas in Riga

In two years of his stay, Richard Wagner conducted about 20 opera productions and premiered five, also realizing several renewals of earlier stagings. Wagner began his career in Riga as the first chapel-master of City Theatre and his first work was additional aria for Carl Blum’s comic opera ‘Marie, Max and Michel.’ This production opened the renewed opera theatre on what is presently Richard Wagner’s street in Riga.

3. Wagner’s portrait in stained glass

In Riga, Wagner lived in a small flat on Kalēju street, in the building now lost for the townscape of Old Riga, later, in 1878, moving to wooden property of Russian merchant Bodroff on Alexander street (Aleksandra ielaLat.) where the first drafts of ‘Rienzi’ came to be heard. This building was torn down in 1912 and replaced by a five storey apartment house (on the corner of Brīvības and Dzirnavu streets), but Wagner’s stay in Riga was honored in it by his portrait in stained glass in one of the second floor windows.

4. ‘Rienzi’ and Riga

Wagner began his work on his five act opera ‘Rienzi,’ based on Edward George Earl Lytton’s novel ‘Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes,’ in Riga, completing its overture and first acts, while it was finished a great deal later, in Paris. Wagner played the first movements of ‘Rienzi’ to the family. Wagner’s sister-in-law Amalia Planner was one of the first soloists to receive several roles in ‘Rienzi,’ but composer himself did not consider its production viable for Riga because of enormity of its scope.

However, full staging of ‘Rienzi’ was realized in Riga in 1878, while, in 2014 – the year of European Capital of Culture, Danish director Kirsten Delholm will bring a new ‘Rienzi’ to the stage of Latvian National Opera.

5. The anthem for Tsar

Rigawas to become the place where one of Richard Wagner’s most controversial compositions – anthem, written in honor of crowning of Tsar of Russia Nikolai I, was created. It was first played, conducted by Wagner, in the House of the Blackheads in 1838.

Composer justified this dedication, announcing that he ‘had wished to lend this song a radically despotic and patriarchal air.’

6. Wagner’s baton

Left by Wagner in Riga in his hurried attempt to escape local debt collectors, conductor’s baton, believed to be his, was again made use of recently and is still on display.

Wagner’s baton is unique for its decoration – a tiny palm, attached to its end. This collectible is found in Riga’s Museum of History and Navigation. In a replay titled ‘With Wagner’s baton’ and realized and conducted by Māris Kupčs in 2004, it was used in restoration of the concert held on March 19, 1838, conducted by Wagner himself and listing solely his compositions written in Riga.

In an interview given to program ‘Klasika’ for Latvia Radio 3, Māris Kupčs has questioned the authenticity of the palm-decorated baton, however, both, as conductor’s instrument and as an object, once owned by Wagner.

7. Revolution in opera culture

Revolutionary changes in the mode of opera presentation, realized by Richard Wagner, also fell into his period of Riga where he – contrary to tradition up-held before – began to conduct orchestra, facing the musicians instead of facing the public.

The construction of Riga City Theatre was later used as architectural blue-print for Bayreuth theatre, while only several details of interior and cast iron staircase have been preserved from Wagner’s time in this building in the Old Town of Riga.

8. In Wagner’s flight from Riga – ‘The Flying Dutchman’

Unable to cover the debts incurred due to a lavish and extravagant lifestyle, Richard Wagner and his wife were forced to leave Riga covertly and in haste in 1839, taking the route across Kurzeme to Russian-Prussian border, and, then, from Konigsberg, to Western Europe. The storm suffered by both on the sea, in this flight, inspired Wagner in creation of new opera ‘The Flying Dutchman.’

9. Richard Wagner’s street

Richard Wagner’s street is found in Vecrīga, stretching from Kaļķu street to Vaļņu street. Riga received it in the 16th century in the process of raising an earth dam. Its historically documented name was Königstrasse or Kings street, which relates it to its once inhabitants – the Konig family.

In Soviet era, it was known as Communal street, but, in keeping with November 20, 1987 decree of Riga council of people’s delegates, historic names were restored to several streets of the Old Town. This move did not rename Communal street as Konig street, however, but, commemorating two years of Richard Wagner working in this location and the fact that Muses House of Riga City Theatre had stood on this street, lent it a historically more faithful name of Wagner (Riharda Vāgnera str. 4).

10. A play about Wagner in Riga

Richard Wagner’s life and creative passions experienced in Riga have found their reflection in play ‘Wagner is not returning,’ written by Latvian dramatist Lauris Gundars in 1994.

Set in 1839, this drama finds Wagner working in opera theatre ‘Muse,’ but finding himself fired because of clashes with its artistic troupe and unrelenting artistic standards he poses to others. Its main character also fails to meet the demands of debt collectors and is forced to leave Riga in secret.


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