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Opulent TV drama traces Wagner's career and personal life

Great Performances: Wagner PBS, Friday, Oct. 24, 9-10 p.m. continuing on three following Fridays, check local listings. Stars Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, Gemma Craven, Marthe Keller, Cyril Cusack. Written by Charles Wood. Directed by Tony Palmer. Produced by Alan Wright for London Trust Productions. Presented on PBS by WNET of New York. Let me say it quickly: ``Wagner'' is a gorgeous hodgepodge. This four-part version of an original nine-part series is lush, lavish, visually stunning, musically thrilling -- but maddeningly incoherent as it trips over a plethora of riches dangling like heavy silver purses from its authentically costumed waist. Filmed in more than 200 locations in six countries, ``Wagner'' is likely to be the most lavish production you will see on TV this year.

How can a series go wrong with Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave and the three Sirs -- Laurence, John, and Ralph? Or with music conducted by Sir Georg Solti, costumes by British Academy Award-winner Shirley Russell, and cinematography by Oscar-winner Vittorio Storato?

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Well, the truth is that none of the above-mentioned talents can be faulted. They functioned impeccably.

The fault lies in the script by Charles Wood and the direction by Tony Palmer. They tried to encompass too much on too small a screen. They tried to squeeze the life, times, and hypocrisies of a musical genius into the persona of a mere earthbound egomaniac. In addition, perhaps Mr. Palmer has seen too many of Ken Russell's uninhibited biographical movies in which emotional hysteria replaces considered analysis.

The series starts with Richard Wagner's funeral procession on Venice's Grand Canal in 1883, and flashbacks to his early revolutionary days in Dresden in 1840. His series of seductions in Switzerland, Paris, and Vienna are detailed, as well as his self-indulgent attitude toward a variety of patrons, culminating in the sponsorship of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Cosima, the wife he stole from a former pupil, is played with sad intensity by Vanessa Redgrave. In the end, Wagner builds his dream theater at Bayreuth.

All of this storyline is accompanied by appropriate Wagner music, performed by the London Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Budapest Symphony orchestras. Viewers may find themselves again and again torn between distaste for the man and admiration for his work.

A warning: You will have to be very patient at the start. The first episode appears to be a series of excerpts with no buildup of character and little chance to become acquainted with Wagner or the period in which he lived. But don't tune out, because later in the hour and in succeeding hours the man and his talent start to grow on you. In any event, you can always disregard the dialogue, listen to the glorious Wagnerian soundtrack, and admire the constantly changing costumes and stupendous locations.

When it is not being maudlin, ``Wagner'' tends to be ponderous, substituting impressive, elegiacal music for human reactions, and pageantry for intimacy. What the viewer gets is a series of plushly illustrated tableaux, adding up to an electronic portrait of Wagner in which he remains as much an enigma as he was in real life.

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