Wagner's Dark Shadow Can We Separate the Man from His Works?
Part 5: Preserving the Memory of Wagner in Venice
Something is still missing in this story: love. With Wagner, of course, there is no alternative but to portray love in its grandest form. He has made love grand through death and tragedy, in characters like Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Tristan and Isolde.
Alessandra Althoff-Pugliese is an attractive, elegant woman of an indeterminate age. It's fair to say that she isn't young, but old isn't a word that fits her, either. She is the chair of the Wagner Society in Venice, a city that was important to the composer. He worked here often, and he died in the city, on Feb. 13, 1883.
It's a sunny day and Althoff-Pugliese, wearing a pretty hat, takes us to the places that were important to Wagner. The palace where he once rented 15 rooms for his family and his entourage is now a casino. There are brightly flashing slot machines, and the casino management has its offices in some of the rooms Wagner once occupied. Althoff-Pugliese has made it her mission to reclaim room after room for her society. She has already succeeded with the room in which he was writing when he was seized with a painful convulsion. She is very lively in her account, even accompanying her stories with a few ballet-like steps.
On the morning of Feb. 13, Wagner had had an argument with Cosima over a visit by another woman. He was writing at his desk when a maid, Betty, heard him moan. A doctor pronounced Wagner dead at about 3 p.m. Before the fountain pen fell from his hand, he wrote: "The process of emancipation of the female only takes place amid ecstatic convulsions. Love - Tragedy." As last words, they were fitting indeed.
At around noon, Althoff-Pugliese takes us to a restaurant that she and her husband liked to frequent. She was an opera singer and was performing at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, where she met Giuseppe Pugliese, a music critic and the founder of the Venice Wagner society. He was much older than she was, but it became a great love story. Pugliese has been dead for three years, and today his widow is continuing his work, preserving the memory of Richard Wagner in Venice.
She recommends fish for lunch, together with a white wine. She apologizes for taking red with hers. She says that whenever she comes to this restaurant, she drinks the red wine her husband used to imbibe, a Merlot from the Veneto region. She also orders dishes her husband used to eat, and talks a great deal about him -- not in a sad way but perhaps with a touch of melancholy. Most of all, however, she sounds fulfilled, almost as if she had found a way to continue her life with Pugliese. When she puts on her hat again after the meal, she says that it was her husband's hat. It's a moment in which one imagines hearing the music of Wagner, disturbingly beautiful music, filled with love and tragedy, one of his quieter passages, not quite as bombastic as the rest.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Can We Separate the Man from His Works?
- Part 2: Germany's Most Important Social Event
- Part 3: A Wagner Enthusiast in Israel
- Part 4: The Wagners: A German Family Straight Out of Greek Mythology
- Part 5: Preserving the Memory of Wagner in Venice