This is the third installment in my highly popular “Stars of the Opera” series, and is a review of yesterday’s “Live at the Met in HD” matinee performance of Tannhäuser, by Richard Wagner.
First, let me just say that the overall impression was very positive! The sets were good, the costumes were gorgeous (in Act II, the entire chorus and all the leads were onstage together, and their costumes were specifically designed to look like a warm-toned medieval tapestry!), the orchestra and chorus magnificent as usual, the leads in top voice giving compelling performances. Wagner would have been happy. Well, maybe… (They say he was a grumpy perfectionist.)
The show was hosted by blonde diva Susan Graham, who treated us to backstage interviews with cast, crew, costume designer, and even the orchestra’s harpist, who features prominently in the “Song Competition” scene of Act II – he plays a real harp in the pit, while the onstage minstrel pretends to strum a small fake harp!
Tannhäuser was composed by Wagner (who wrote both music and libretto) in 1845. The story was based on medieval German legends. Wagner originally intended for this work to be performed alongside his future opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Both operas involve the theme of a song contest. The idea was to perform the two works on consecutive nights: “Die Meistersinger” being a raucous comedy, and “Tannhäuser” a tear-jerking tragedy.
Tannhäuser is one of a kind
But, apart from the common idea of a song competition, “Tannhäuser” is nothing at all like “Die Meistersinger”. Well, maybe they share one common important idea, which is the role of music and song in forming the German national identity. Aside from that, they are completely different animals. “Die Meistersinger” is all about ART, about forming public standards to guide the work of artists, without being too restrictive. Whereas “Tannhäuser” is about the nature of human and divine LOVE.
Structurally as well, “Tannhäuser” stands out in classical 19th century opera. There is a very long Overture, almost 20 minutes long (and one of the most famous and magnificent overtures in the history of opera, I might add). The Overture (which was directed by Meister James Levine) displays all the major melodies and in essence tells the whole story of the opera. Moreover, the audience does not applause, like they usually do, at the end of an Overture. Because as the curtain opens for Act I, the Overture seamlessly morphs into the ballet number. Counting the Overture and the ballet, almost 25 minutes go by before a single human voice is heard. The first human words sung are those of pagan Sirens chanting eerily:
Naht euch dem Strande!
Naht euch dem Lande,
wo in den Armen
still’ eure Triebe!
Draw near the shore!
Approach the land,
where, in the arms
of glowing love,
let blissful warmth
content your desires!
Speaking of paganism, the ballet number caused quite a controversy when Wagner’s opera premiered in Paris. Not because the bacchanale was too sexy, au contraire, Parisian audiences expected a saucy ballet — but rather because the ballet was placed too early in the show, at the start of Act I instead of the usual Act II. As Wiki points out:
There was a serious planned assault on the opera’s reception by members of the wealthy and aristocratic Jockey Club. Their custom was to arrive at the Opéra only in time for the Act II ballet, after previously dining, and, as often as not, to leave after the close of the ballet, some of whose dancers were romanced by members of the Jockey Club. They objected to the ballet coming in Act I, since this meant they would have to be present from the beginning of the opera.
In the Met version, the bacchanale ballet was not exactly the best ever, but it was well done. Let me put it this way: I have seen Tannhäusers where the dancers were dressed as insect pupae, and the Goddess Venus herself like a giant termite mother. Compared with that sort of heresy, this was not bad at all. In fact, it was quite sexy, without being vulgar. This is an accomplishment. Some of the Met dance numbers in recent years have been tainted by vulgarity. Let us not even speak of the barcarolle scene in an otherwise excellent Hoffmann, where the dancing courtesans wave their crotches to the Poet and his Muse.
What is this thing called Love?
The major theme of “Tannhäuser” is the question as to the nature of Love itself. What constitutes Love between two people? Is it just a chemical attraction? Or is it a meeting of souls in a higher plane? Or a combination of both? Wagner’s hero is supposedly torn between raw lust for the Goddess Venus versus his more spiritual love for Elizabeth. But in essence, I think what Wagner was trying to say, is that the two types of love are not mutually exclusive.
Wagner created a purposeful duality in his two major male leads: Tannhäuser the HeldenTenor (=Heroic Tenor) is a proponent of physical love (=lust), whereas the bard Wolfram Von Eschenbach (in this production sung by the superb Swedish baritone Peter Mattei) sings of “true love” or spiritual love. Wolfram’s metaphor is the “Evening Star”, the symbol of purity and steadfastness. But the odd thing is, that Venus is both: The Goddess/Planet is both Morning Star and Evening Star. As Wolfram must surely have known.
As story-teller and harpist, Wolfram is the glue which binds all the characters, and the plot together. Wolfram is the man who tries to help everyone, and to make everything right. He is a true “Christian”, in the good sense of the word. Wolfram loves Elizabeth, but more like a father, or brother. There is no physical chemistry between them. And yet they are completely compatible: I personally believe, that if Elizabeth were to give up on her doomed love for Tannhäuser and marry Wolfram, they would have made a contented couple, even if they didn’t lust for each other in the bedroom.
Religious elements in the opera
“Tannhäuser” is one of Wagner’s three Christian/highly Catholic operas. The other two being “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal”. Ironically, the three operas together tell an arcing story, but in reverse order of their composition. “Parsifal” (English “Sir Perceval”) tells of the young Fool who ascends to the post of “Keeper of the Holy Grail and Holy Lance”; aka “King of Grail Castle”. (After the previous ruler, Amfortas aka “The Fisher King”, is sent into forced retirement.) The action of “Parsifal” takes place in Arthurian times.
Just one generation later, Parsifal’s son, the Good Sir Lohengrin [and don’t ask me how Parsifal conceived a son, since he had sworn a vow of chastity, which was in fact the main reason why he broke up with Kundry!] is the subject of Wagner’s second Christian opera “Lohengrin”.
Now fast forward a few centuries to the year 1200 (which I estimate from the birth-to-death dates of Wolfram von Eschenbach: 1170 – 1220). This was the era of the legendary German Minnesingers (=Minstrels), in which performing artists such as Wolfram, Tannhäuser, and a guy named Biterolf, help consolidate German national identity through song competitions. By now, Roman Catholicism is dominant everywhere in Europe. Almost all elements of paganism, still present in Lohengrin’s time, have been rooted out of society. The Goddess Venus, who used to rule as a star in the Heavens, is now confined to an underground grotto, called, appropriately, Venusberg. The Christian characters in the story, who worship at a nearby shrine to the Virgin Mary, believe that Venusberg is one and the same as HELL. When it is revealed to them that Tannhäuser is Venus’ ex-boyfriend, this is construed as so evil and hellish, and is so shocking, that it places him beyond redemption, in the eyes of all except the ever-loyal Elizabeth. And the problem these people have with this is not even mainly about the great sex he was enjoying: It’s more about religious impurity, and about Tannhäuser still being partly pagan in his way of thinking.
The Three Magic Words
A unifying element which unites all three acts of the opera is the magic of a word, namely a spoken name. In each of the three acts, Tannhäuser speaks a name, and in the act of speaking, he makes a moral choice. In Act I, it is enough for him to pronounce the name “Mary” (as in Mary the Mother of God), in order to banish Venus. In Act II he pronounces the name “Venus” again, during the song contest, in the course of declaring: “No man has known true love, who has not known love in the arms of Venus.” In Act III, a repentant Tannhäuser pronounces the name “Elizabeth”. This name once again banishes Venus, who is trying to entice him back. But personally I think that Wagner was trying to say, in his dialectical manner, that Elizabeth is actually the SYNTHESIS of Mary and Venus. But that’s just my theory.
Major Plot and Backstory
Act I – I already took you through most of this, pretty much. There is the Overture, the erotic ballet, then the big break-up scene between Tannhäuser and Venus. For something like a full hour, he tries to break up with her. Venus employs every weapon in the female arsenal: cajoling, threats, weepy tantrums, anger, vows of eternal affection, more cajoling, more threats. It is only when Tannhäuser pronounces the magic word “Mary Mother of God”, that Venus backs off. It’s like throwing garlic at a vampire. But not before warning him: “You will come crawling back to me on your hands and knees.” Which, ironically, he does, but not until Act III.
Act II takes place at the Castle of Wartburg, in the Principality of Thuringia. The ruler of Thuringia is Count Hermann, along with his beloved niece, Princess Elizabeth. Elizabeth, sung and performed beautifully by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, is a very nice person – so nice, in fact, that she embodies Wagner’s ideal of the Perfect Woman. She shares that feature with other Wagnerian heroines such as Brunhilde in “Der Ring” and Senta in “Der fliegende Holländer“. To be a good Wagnerian heroine, it is not enough to “Stand by your Man”, you must be willing to DIE in order to Redeem, or Save, him from eternal damnation.
Before really delving into the politics of the Thuringian court, we need some backstory. As is typical in Grand Opera, most of the real story has already taken place long before the curtain rises. In Wagner’s operas, we are typically told the backstory (over and over) by long rambling passages in the libretto. Whenever a Wagner character asks another character, “Tell me how this happened,” then you better buckle your seatbelt, because you know you are in for at least an hour of additional musical exposition. So here we go with the backstory:
- The principality of Thuringia is a well-travelled place. It is known for being at the crossroads of a major route which pilgrims take on their way south to Rome. The new pope has ordered that everybody seeking atonement for their sins, must make the pilgrimage. So there are a lot of travellers. The pilgrims typically stay overnight, sometimes sleeping in the meadow, near which is a small shrine to the Virgin Mary, where they can stop and pray. (Ironically, unbeknownst to the pilgrims, the secret entrace to Venusberg is also quite nearby, just off to the right!)
- Also going on in Thuringia at this time: The vocal talent have been competing against each other for several years now, in the annual Wartburg Castle slam-songfest. Count Hermann presents the contestants with a different theme each year – for example, one year it was “How to Praise the Prince”. His sweet little niece Elizabeth pulls the ballots from the pot and awards the prize to the winner. It’s always the same men, year after year. Some years Tannhäuser wins, other years Wolfram wins. This year, it might be Biterolf. Either way, Elizabeth over the years is slowly but surely falling in love with Tannhäuser. Her love for him is deep and spiritual, but she also craves physical affection from the ruggedly handsome yet bad-boy type minnesinger.
- Meanwhile, in a completely different part of his life, and unbeknownst to his friends at Wartburg Castle, Tannhäuser has won the prize in a totally different song contest, this one organized by the Goddess Venus. Venus is a narcissistic diva, the theme of ALL of her song contests is: “Love me Love me Love me 500 ways to Love me”. Tannhäuser’s prize-winning entry in this contest contains the following rapturous leitmotif, known as “Adulation of Venus”:
- First Prize is that Venus falls in love with the minstrel. His song is just that good. So she takes him away to live in Venusberg with her. Where they have awesome sex 24/7. Some time goes by, let’s say, 5 years or so.
- Meanwhile, back at the Castle, Elizabeth is sad when her would-be future husband disappears without a trace. Without Tannhäuser there, she loses all interest in the song contests, and really in everything else in life. She starts to sink into clinical depression. Uncle Hermann and all the Minstrels worry about her. They all care about her, in a fatherly way, she is sort of like La fille du régiment to them.
- And this is the state of affairs, when the curtain rises on our intrepid heroes.
The Song-Slam Turns Into a Donnybrook
We are now ready to move onto the song contest scene of Act II. And I have to say, this is definitely one of the best Act II’s that I have ever seen! Everybody was onstage: the entire chorus, all the principals, just singing their lungs out, and Lordy! is Wagner’s music so deep and fulfilling – if you are a Wagnerian, then you understand how this music gets into your blood. If you are NOT a Wagnerian, well then … I pity you, that’s all I can say.
I think everybody knows the leitmotif of the “Entrance of the Guests” into the hall where the singing contest is to be held:
The singing contest begins in an orderly fashion. Elizabeth, overjoyed to see Tannhäuser back in Wartburg, is the happiest person in the room. She is confident that her dear friend Wolfram has set things up to make her happy: Tannhäuser will win the contest, and also her hand in marriage. All will be well…
Until Tannhäuser ruins everything. He just cannot behave himself, he creates a scene, shoves Wolfram off the podium, even when it’s not his turn yet. The orderly contest turns into a “Bring it on” type slam-fest, with the minstrels pushing each other aside and trying to out-riff each other. And next thing you know, Tannhäuser bursts into his previous prize-winning “Adulation of Venus” song. (I guess he misses dear old Venus after all!) And which is completely inappropriate for this Christian venue, and ends up humiliating Elizabeth. Now she knows that Tannhäuser was cheating on her with that slut Venus! Even so, a devastated Elizabeth is able to summon up all her strength to keep Uncle and the guests from skewering Tannhäuser with their lances. For me, one of the most moving lines in the opera is when Elizabeth turns to Tannhäuser and sings: “An innocent maiden loved you with all her heart… and you broke it!”
Uncle Hermann then orders Tannhäuser, in lieu of being put to death, to perform the following penance: The minstrel must make pilgrimage to Rome, crawl on his hands and knees to the Pope, and beg for forgiveness. Tannhäuser agrees, and sets off on his trip.
The Pope Refuses to Pardon the Minstrel
Moving on now to Act III:
Since I have deduced that the action takes place around the year 1200, then the Pope in Rome would have been Innocent III. This is the man who persecuted heretics and started the Fourth Crusade. This Pope, who is never seen onstage, is one of the villains of the opera, in my opinion: It is his mean spirit which leads to the deaths of both protagonists.
The act begins with Wolfram and Elizabeth frantically searching through the ranks of the returning pilgrims, back from Rome and passing through Thuringia again, on their way home. The pilgrims are tired and dusty, but happy: All of them received pardons from the Pope – yay!
I am pretty sure everybody knows the pilgrims leitmotif, first the sombre yet dignified crooning of the horns:
And then the string section goes nuts with rapid cadenzas, in that part of the leitmotif called “The Pulse of Life” which also represents, in Wagner’s world, the pure joy of Redemption:
Unfortunately, Tannhäuser is not there to share this joy. He is not among the victoriously returning pigrims. Losing all hope, Elizabeth sinks deeper into her clinical depression. Not having prozac in those days, she wanders offstage and dies of a broken heart.
Wolfram remains onstage, and suddenly notices a lone, solitary pilgrim returning. It is Tannhäuser, dusty and limping, almost barely alive. In typical Wagnerian fashion, Wolfram asks him: “Tell me what happened,” and Tannhäuser spends the next hour obliging his request, by belting out his story. The minstrel, putting himself through every possible form of suffering — walking barefoot on stones, going without food or drink, sleeping in the cold snow at night — finally made it to Rome and obtained an audience with the Pope. Who basically spat in his face and told him: “You will receive a pardon on the day that my barren staff sprouts leaves again.”
In other words – NEVER!
This is the moment where Tannhäuser decides that, with nothing else on his plate, he has no option except to go crawling back to Venus. To Wolfram’s horror, he summons the goddess, and she appears, at the entrace to her erotically teeming grotto.
Redemption by Love
The rest of the action of the opera happens very quickly. Once again, I must tell the finale to this story in some sequence, keeping in mind that the chronology here is very tight: After the re-appearance of Venus, it all happens rapidly, in the course of only about 15 minutes:
- Elizabeth dies.
- Tannhäuser appears and is met by Wolfram, near the shrine to the Virgin Mary.
- Tannhäuser goes crawling back to Venus, and she is ready to take him back.
- Wolfram reminds his friend about Elizabeth, which partially brings Tannhäuser back to his senses.
- Elizabeth’s funeral procession suddenly appears. This is the first inkling Tannhäuser has that dear Lizzy is dead.
- Tannhäuser collapses in grief, and is partially dead himself.
- When Tannhäuser pronounces the name “Elizabeth”, Venus finally “gets it” that her ex isn’t really into her any more. She disappears.
- Elizabeth’s soul ascends to Heaven. First order of business: Interceding through Mary and Jesus, she begs God to pardon Tannhäuser.
- God agrees and overrules the Pope’s decision.
- Back in Rome, the Pope’s staff suddenly sprouts leaves.
- The somewhat miffed Pope hands his sprouty staff to a pilgrim, to take back to Thuringia with him. [bullet points #8-11 are not seen onstage.]
- Back in Thuringia: Tannhäuser dies of grief for Elizabeth.
- Even though the trip back from Rome normally takes 8 months, the pilgrim suddenly appears in Thuringia, as if he was beamed back instantaneously, showing off the sprouty staff, as proof that the minstrel has been forgiven.
- Tannhäuser’s soul ascends to Heaven, where it joins Elizabeth’s soul in eternal bliss.
- Wolfram is left with a sad story to tell, at his next song competition.