This epic film – described by Richard Hornak in Opera News as “one of the most beautiful motion pictures in history” – was originally made in 1982/3 to mark the 100th anniversary of Wagner’s death.
Filmed in 200 locations throughout Europe, many where the actual historical events took place, with a team from 19 different countries, the entire production was completed in less than a year. Sadly it was to be Richard Burton’s last major role, but the stellar cast assembled partly because of him - Olivier, Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Franco Nero, Marthe Keller, Gemma Craven, Gwyneth Jones, Peter Hofmann, Arthur Lowe, Ekkehardt Schall (Brecht’sson-in-law), Joan Greenwood, Sir William Walton, Gabriel Byrne, Andrew Cruickshank – the list is endless.
Multi-Oscar-winner Vittorio Storaro & Nic Knowland, the cameramen, produced a stream of astonishing images. And none of it would have been possible without the active and continuous support of Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s grandson.
Much rubbish has been written about the film since its completion. Apparently it is nine hours long; two hours long; five hours long. It is none of those. It is seven hours and 46 minutes in length precisely. It is not, and never has been, a mini-Series, and was always intended as a single film. Apparently it went hugely over budget; was made as a ‘tax loss’; ITV refused to show it; the producers ordered the negative burnt.
Only the last is true. Fact: it cost less than £7 million. Fact: it was finished and delivered on time. Various distributors since, legal and illegal, have lied about its sales, misrepresented its contents, allowed cheap DVDs (made from poor quality VHS) to be marketed, and ignored the wishes of those who created it.
So here it is, finally, as it was originally edited by Tony Palmer, restored in wide-screen and Hi-Definition. The music, conducted more-or-less as a favour by Sir Georg Solti, has never sounded better. Storaro’s photography has never looked better. And the script by Charles Wood remains a miracle of historical compression and accuracy, given that Wagner himself was an appalling fantasist and the truth often hard to ascertain.
And Richard Burton, who towers above the production, reminds us what a great actor he was. This is a fitting tribute to his – and to Wagner’s – genius.
Region 0 NTSC wide-screen