Picks and Pans Review: Great Performances: Wagner

updated 10/27/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/27/1986 01:00AM

PBS (Fri., Oct. 24, 9 p.m. ET)

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With credits like these, it would seem you can't go wrong: The show stars Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave, Marthe Keller and the three Sirs—Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. And it was filmed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who won Oscars for the revolutionary Apocalypse Now and Reds. But Wagner, made in 1982, ended up nine hours long—not the sort of flick to play in the local cineplex. So it was cut to a five-hour mini for British TV. Now it's been cut again, to four hours and four nights, for PBS, with narration to replace missing scenes and explain what's going on. The result is like nothing I've ever seen: half straightforward documentary, half startling drama. Burton, in one of his many "last" roles, makes a spectacular Richard Wagner, portraying opera's mad genius as an articulate, political and dangerous Bill Buckley of his age; as a dandy who wears coats Liberace would die for; as a shameless cad who takes money from a rich man, has an affair with the man's wife ("I think we should share her," Wagner says) and then asks the man for yet more money. Wagner displays even more gall by having another affair, this one with Vanessa Redgrave as the daughter of one friend (composer Franz Liszt) and the wife of another. In the huge, dark shadow cast by Burton's Wagner, it's hard for the rest of the cast to sparkle. I've never seen Redgrave sink into the background like this. But thank goodness Burton doesn't stop the three Sirs from engaging in some wonderfully genteel scene stealing. The writing is elegant and the cinematography stunning in every frame. And there's humor: Some people in Wagner do what I do at the sound of opera—yawn and snooze. But it doesn't matter whether you like Wagner the composer or hate Wagner the man; Wagner the miniseries is still spellbinding. I suspect I should be grateful to the "editors who cut Wagner down to size; much of the snipped film was no doubt ponderous and hard to follow. But these four hours were so enthralling I'm curious to see the other five. Whenever a show leaves you wanting more, that's a good sign.

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