Wagner (film)

Wagner is a 1983 television miniseries on the life of Richard Wagner. The title role was played by Richard Burton. It was directed by Tony Palmer and written by Charles Wood.[1] The film was later released on DVD as a ten-part miniseries.

Wagner (film).jpg
Written byCharles Wood
Directed byTony Palmer
StarringRichard Burton
Vanessa Redgrave
Gemma Craven
Marthe Keller
Ronald Pickup
László Gálffi
Miguel Herz-Kestranek
John Gielgud
Ralph Richardson
Laurence Olivier
Sir William Walton
Susana Walton
ComposerRichard Wagner
Country of originUK
Original languageEnglish
No. of seasons1
No. of episodes10
Production locationsDublin, Ireland
CinematographyVittorio Storaro
Running time466 minutes
Production companyHungarofilm
Picture formatColor
Audio formatMono
Original releaseDecember 1983 (1983-12)

Other main roles were played by Vanessa Redgrave, Gemma Craven, Marthe Keller, Ronald Pickup, Miguel Herz-Kestranek and László Gálffi. Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Laurence Olivier played ministers of Ludwig II of Bavaria.

The miniseries also include the Walton couple, the composer William Walton, typical friend of the director, and his wife Susan Walton, in the roles of the royal couple in real life Frederick Augustus II of Saxony and Maria Anna of Bavaria.

The music of Wagner was specially recorded for the film, and conducted by Sir Georg Solti.


Tony Palmer's original concept of Wagner was as a feature film. It lasted 7 hours 46 minutes, but it was later edited down to a 5-hour version in which some characters disappeared. Later the film was screened as a 10 episode mini-series on television clocking in at almost 9 hours. In 2011 it was re-released in a three-DVD set in its full original version as a feature film, in high definition and widescreen.[2] It had earlier been released on videotape.

It was filmed in many authentic locations including King Ludwig II's castle of Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee, and the Residenz in Munich, Germany. Other locations were in Hungary, Switzerland, Siena, Tuscany, Venice, Vienna and Dublin.

Palmer said of Burton's performance, "Even now – although there were criticisms – I can't think of anybody who could have brought it off better than he did."[3]

Critical receptionEdit

The film received glowing reviews from leading European and music journals. However, in America when a much truncated version just over 4 hours was shown on PBS the New York Times described the show as a disaster.[4]

"Wagner can be mentioned alongside such exceptional film biographies as Gandhi, Reds and Abel Gance's Napoléon ... Wagner is one of the most beautifully photographed motion pictures in history."[5]

"An absolute bulls-eye... wonderful... technically brilliant.. musically and filmically on the highest level... it will surely set out on a triumphant procession around the world."[6]

"A monumental film... a complete work of art... truly visionary..."[7]

"A remarkable event... hardly a minute too long... a British Film of glory... takes the screen by storm... a big spirited work"[8]


Episode guideEdit

Wagner was released on DVD as a ten-part miniseries. Despite the fact that the separate installments are billed as episodes, only the first episode has opening credits, and only the last episode has closing credits, with all other episodes beginning and ending with abrupt scene changes.

Episode 1
Opening in 1849, Richard Wagner is a respected composer living in Dresden where he works as royal court conductor for the King of Saxony. Although his wife, Minna, enjoys their life and status, Wagner is bored with his work for the ageing king and spends most of his time writing revolutionary pamphlets against the establishment and aristocracy. Eventually, the May Uprising breaks out in which Wagner becomes an important figure. When Saxon and Prussian troops crush the uprising, Wagner becomes a wanted man and is forced to flee to Zürich, Switzerland.

Episode 2
After refusing to join her husband for quite some time, Minna eventually agrees to move to Zürich to be reunited with Wagner. She manages to persuade Wagner to start conducting and composing again and urges him to travel to France. In Bordeaux, Wagner meets a wealthy Scottish emigree, Mrs. Taylor, who agrees to become a patron of his, although he has a brief affair with her married daughter. Upon traveling to Paris, Wagner is ordered to leave the city at once and return to Zürich. In Zürich he meets up with his good friend Franz Liszt, while also taking on a pupil, Karl Ritter, the son of another patron, Mrs. Ritter.

Episode 3
In the 1850s, Wagner's health deteriorates and he suffers from various illnesses. Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, becomes yet another one of his patrons and offers him the cottage on her estate as his residence. Once installed in the cottage, Wagner begins a passionate correspondence with Mathilde, which upsets both Mathilde's husband, Otto, and Wagner's wife, Minna, who seeks solace in increasing amounts of laudanum. Wagner, who starts composing Tristan und Isolde for Mathilde, is also visited by his good friend Hans von Bülow, and his new bride Cosima, Liszt's daughter. After a while, Minna works up the courage to confront Wagner and Mathilde about their correspondence.

Episode 4
Wagner moves to Venice, Italy to finish Tristan und Isolde. When Karl Ritter informs him that Mrs Ritter is no longer able to provide Wagner with money, he ends their friendship and travels to Paris. In Paris, Wagner is ordered by the French emperor to stage a new version of his famous opera Tannhäuser. However, the show is a fiasco when riots break out during the performance to protest both Wagner's break with artistic conventions (a ballet in the first act, instead of the second) and the involvement of one of his patrons, the Austrian Princess Metternich.

Episode 5
After the failure in Paris, Wagner travels around Europe to Switzerland, Austria and Russia. He tries staging Tristan und Isolde in Vienna, but is unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Minna continues to plead with the Dresden court for amnesty for Richard, which is eventually granted. Wagner returns but is chased away when creditors come looking for him. Destitute, Wagner tries to hide but is eventually found by Pfistermeister, personal secretary to the King of Bavaria who is desperate to meet him.

Episode 6
In Munich, Wagner enjoys a prosperous time under the patronage of the young King of Bavaria. Most of his debts are settled and several of his operas are staged to great success. Meanwhile, Wagner has an affair with Cosima, wife of his good friend Hans von Bülow, much to the dismay of Cosima's father, Franz Liszt. Although Wagner and King Ludwig II have become close friends, the King's ministers and the people of Bavaria are weary of Wagner. Wagner eventually has a falling-out with the King when he asks Ludwig to pay for a portrait of Wagner which is painted as a gift to Ludwig himself.

Episode 7
One year later in 1865, Wagner must reconcile with the King and eventually does so. Their friendship grows even stronger while Ludwig's ministers are becoming increasingly suspicious of Wagner and his ever-increasing demands for money. The premiere of Tristan und Isolde has to be postponed when the lead actress falls ill but finally happens a few months later. Ludwig leaves the premiere before the end to travel into the night on board the royal train. When Bavaria faces external challenges and Wagner's lifestyle becomes too extravagant for the Bavarian people, Ludwig is finally forced to banish Wagner from his country. Meanwhile, Cosima gives birth to Wagner's daughter, while Minna dies alone, neglected by Wagner.

Episode 8
In 1866, Wagner moves to Lucerne with Cosima and her children. He is later joined by King Ludwig who wishes to abdicate in order to become Wagner's assistant. Wagner convinces him to return to Bavaria, where war with Prussia erupts. Hans von Bülow eventually also visits them in Lucerne, where Cosima asks him for a divorce, which he refuses. When Hans is overly tired by his work for Wagner, he leaves, and Wagner hires Hans Richter as his new assistant. They are visited by Friedrich Nietzsche. Cosima gives birth to Wagner's son.

Episode 9
In 1869, Wagner and Cosima are overjoyed by the birth of their son, Siegfried, while war between Prussia and France begins the following year. The war concludes with a quick victory for Prussia, which finally realises Wagner's lifelong dream of a fully united Germany. Wagner marries Cosima and is ordered by Ludwig to stage his opera Das Rheingold. When Wagner decides to postpone the opera, one day before the premiere, he and Ludwig have a falling-out. Wagner is denied access to the theatre and decides to build his own opera house in Bayreuth.

Episode 10
In the 1870s, construction on the opera house in Bayreuth begins and his epic Der Ring des Nibelungen can finally be premiered. The performance is attended by Ludwig who is slowly losing his mind, while living in his gigantic new castle Neuschwanstein. Wagner and Nietzsche have a falling-out over Wagner's lifestyle and ideas (including his rampant anti-semitism). Shortly before his death in 1883, the aged Wagner and Liszt reflect on Wagner's life: the people he has known, the events that occurred and the music he composed.


Wagner by A. C. H. Smith. In German and Italian (1983) ISBN 3-453-01837-0. English-language edition (2012) ISBN 978-1-85135-035-3. Now available also in English

For more details see "A. C. H. Smith, Wagner novelisation". Retrieved 23 January 2013.


  1. ^ Vimeo
  2. ^ Limelight, July 2011: Palmer talks Wagner
  3. ^ Bragg, Melvyn, Rich! The Life of Richard Burton, p. 464
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Opera News, November 1983 – Richard Hornak
  6. ^ Die Welt, November 1983
  7. ^ Der Spiegel, November 1983
  8. ^ The Sunday Times, November 1983

External linksEdit