Winnie is Richard Wagner’s daughter-in-law; Wolf is Hitler. Their relationship is just one item in this fact/fiction hybrid, an appealing grab bag of impressions of the Bayreuth Festival, the Weimar Republic and much more.
There are three strands in the latest narrative from Wilson (Betjeman, 2006, etc.). The first dips into Wagner’s life while examining his major operas. The second is the relationship of Winnie and Wolf between 1923 and 1939. The third is the narrator’s story. N (no name vouchsafed) starts work as clerical assistant to Siegfried (Fidi) Wagner in Bayreuth in 1924. A young German with musician parents, he is quite bland beside the larger-than-life Fidi and his wife Winnie. Festival director Fidi was a flamboyant homosexual. Fearing scandal, his mother Cosima, Wagner’s widow, arranged his marriage to the teen orphan Winnie, and he surprisingly sired four children before his death in 1930, when Winnie became director. We see her through the eyes of the helplessly smitten N, a not altogether reliable narrator. Winnie is a bundle of contradictions, a fervent Nazi in love with Hitler, but a good-hearted woman who refuses to connect Hitler to his Jew-baiting street thugs. As for Hitler, N first sees him benevolently (he’s marvelous with the Wagner children); the scales fall from his eyes after he meets Helga, his Communist girlfriend. N conjectures the two were briefly lovers and had an unacknowledged love child; once married, he and Helga will adopt her. Wilson revels in contradictions, in Wagner’s work as well as in his protagonists, while celebrating Wagner as “a free creative spirit,” not shackled to any ideology. It’s a measure of the work’s idiosyncrasy that it’s not Wolf and Winnie but Richard and Cosima who, in the dying widow’s memory, enter the Wagnerian Venusberg, while Hitler’s greatest coup involves the set design for the opera Parsifal.
Deliberately excessive, Wilson’s latest lacks artistic coherence but does offer a feast for music lovers.