This highly engaging study is perhaps the most significant publication in Wagner studies for a decade. It reads like silk, and informs and challenges readers along the way.
The book's six sections, each subdivided into smaller chapters, are broadly chronological:
"A few beginnings" addresses the problem of Wagner's biography with striking clarity, as well as more than a modicum of wit. Deathridge is one of the few English-speaking scholars who has studied the manuscripts of his primary materials in significant detail, and he is able to guide readers through the revisions to Wagner's three autobiographies, the strange ventriloquism of Cosima's diary, and Wagner's self-interested editing of his own essays, with welcome ease. The subtle assessment of why "Wagner's biography has been researched to within an inch of his life" is always informative and will doubtless form a reference point for a long time to come. A chapter on "Lohengrin," the critical edition of which Deathridge recently produced, offers a fresh look at this often neglected opera whose "critical star has dimmed." Deathridge argues that, far from a nostalgic backwards glance to Romanticism (the swan, Chivalric imagery and the Nazarene movement etc.), Wagner saw Lohengrin as "a thoroughly modern work pointing to a utopian future precisely because it returns to the most fundamental origins of human feelings." .
"Der Ring des Nibelungen," the book's second section, offers a substantive chapter on each of the operas in Wagner's tetralogy. Though the quantity of literature on this subject beggars belief, Deathridge is able convincingly to draw together disparate strands, connections between Wagner's works, ideas migrating across from the writings of Feuerbach, Proudhon, and Marx (et al), to Wagner's own writings, as well as taking account of trends in nineteenth-century historiography, and all within a fluctuating political climate. The result? A richly rewarding, and thoroughly up-to-date induction into Wagner's most extended artistic project. There is not space here to go into details, suffice to say that Deathridge's special skill here is to present the undeniable complexity of Wagner's personal and professional goals in coherent, concise, and digestible chapters.
"The Elusiveness of Tragedy" is the smallest section, and takes on the oddly neglected topic of Wagner's interest in Greek theatre. In a separate chapter, Deathridge also examines the parallels between Verdi's Don Carlos and Goetterdaemmerung in the context of German baroque drama (aka Trauerspiel). While some readers may regard this as perhaps one of the more esoteric corners of the book, its analysis of the overlap between German idealism and nineteenth-century Hellenism, and the investigation of music's role in Trauerspiel, will certainly inform and engage a more academically minded readership.
"Tristan and Isolde", "Mature polemics", and "Operatic Futures" make up the second half of the book, and provide some of the most fascinating discussion. This includes detailed studies of Wagner's "(lost)" Symphony in C and pervasive symphonic aspirations, the philosophical and aesthetic context of Isolde's death, a study of Wagner's often breathtaking modernity, and critical (historical) ambivalence over Parsifal (which incorporates such neon-flashing wordplay as: "Sex and the Pity"). It is in this context that Deathridge broaches the difficult topic of Wagner's anti-Semitism, or Wagner's "barmy racial universe" . He demonstrates how contemporary writers such as J. A. De Gobineau and B. A. Morel played into an emerging European-wide discourse about race that Wagner was arguably already engaged in: "the concept of degeneration ... [within] the quasi-science of early psychiatric studies devoted to heredity and alleged decline of the human race"  The specific discussion of how the back-and-forth between Gobineau and the etymologist August Friedrich Pott affected Wagner is compelling. Over and above Deathridge's sensitive and historically detailed treatment of aspects of Wagner's anti-Semitism, the chapter on Parsifal is also able to illustrate how "the melancholic sense of stasis and decay among the knights of the Grail ... is clearly reflected by the formal and harmonic processes of the music"--and how--"the paradox of motionlessness through motion, or motion through motionlessness pervades the entire score."  Linking musical procedures to socio-historical realities--two quite separate languages--is a special skill, and Deathridge's judicious presentation of evidence offers much for readers to consider, particularly (but certainly not exclusively) for musically literature ones.
All in all, this book will appeal to specialist and non-specialist alike, to cultural historian and opera fan. Its erudition and sheer richness is apparent on every page, but it wears this lightly, and the prose often sparkles with humour, irony, and word play. The scope of the book is vast, in effect spanning three centuries of Wagnerian aesthetics, their reception history and cultural ramifications; the concise chapters and elegant prose always make for comfortable reading. It seems likely that this will become a standard work of reference on Wagner and his cultural politics for many, many years to come.