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‘Tannhäuser’: Blasphemy or piety?BY: Steve Cohen 01.01.2011
Is Tannhäuser a religious opera, or sacrilegious? Put the blame on Wagner, a composer who insisted on his right to partake of both worlds.
Tannhäuser. Opera by Richard Wagner. December 11, 2010-January 2, 2011 by The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London. Available on www.bbc.co.uk/radio/programmes.
The Tannhäuser riddle:
I never thought of Tannhäuser as a Christmas opera. Not like Hansel und Gretel, or La Bohème, where scenes took place on Christmas Eve. Unlike Parsifal, which is performed on Good Friday because Wagner wrote specifically about that day. Tannhäuser rarely if ever was performed at Christmas, even when it was a popular favorite.
But I heard Tannhäuser broadcast live on Christmas Day from Covent Garden in London. Intrigued by this timing, I realized how the opera indeed is appropriate for the day— and, conversely, how one aspect of it is totally inappropriate.
The plot concerns a knight who wants to leave Venus’s kingdom of pleasures. Tannhäuser rejects eroticism and calls on the Virgin Mary for help, then makes a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution for his sins. There the Pope rebuffs him, ruling that damnation awaits those who have enjoyed the pleasures of Venus and saying Tannhäuser could as soon be forgiven as the papal staff could break into flower. Tannhäuser collapses when he witnesses the death of the pure Elizabeth, whereupon a miracle occurs: the Pope’s staff blossoms, and Tannhäuser apparently will be welcomed into heaven.
The story seems sanctimonious. But Wagner had no attachment to Catholicism and himself had just returned from a period of debauchery in Paris that paralleled his hero’s activities in the opera’s first part.
Despite the plot’s obsession with Christianity, the great tenor Jon Vickers abruptly withdrew from the role in the 1970s because he decided that the opera was “blasphemous.”
Two Christian singers
To be sure, Vickers was an intense man. In my years as a radio producer and host, I interviewed two avowedly religious Christian singers whose personalities differed vastly: Vickers and the bass Jerome Hines. The latter was a committed Christian who refused to portray the devil on stage and who wrote his own opera about the life of Christ (he sang the title role). But he cheerfully recognized other points of view.
Vickers, on the other hand, was intimidating. I respected him, but it was easy to see why some folks thought the role of the crazed Peter Grimes was a natural role for the argumentative Vickers.
Wagner created Tannhäuser as an embodiment of his own view that erotic, recreational love was acceptable in tandem with spiritual love. His hero wanted to combine the sensual with the chaste. Personally, Wagner may not have lusted for any virgin— he preferred affairs with married women— but he did want to combine his sensual life style with a reputation as an upstanding public figure. Both Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Tristan, as well as his Ring cycle, show the composer repeatedly trying to justify his own sexual indulgences.
In Tannhäuser, Wagner appealed to others whose activities were outside the accepted norm and who felt outlawed by their sexuality. Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, called Tannhäuser “a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul.”
Counterbalancing this captivation for homosexuals, Wagner wrote libidinal, orgiastic music for the scene between Tannhäuser and Venus. Wagner’s text is also full of erotic word play, with puns about the hero being “in” and “penetrating” the hill of Venus. Baudelaire, the Parisian romantic poet, picked up on this and wrote admiringly about the “frenzied love” of the Venusberg scene.
Wagner agreed with the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel, who developed a concept of mind and spirit full of contradictions that ultimately could be united and synthesized without eliminating either pole. Some theologians agree. That’s why erotic verses from The Song of Solomon are used in services for the Virgin Mary— because sensual love was analogous to the love of God for his people. (See my BSR review of the Monteverdi Vespers.) All these aspects renew my fascination for Tannhäuser.
Musical confusion, too
Tannhäuser is intriguing musically as well. It’s early Wagner, with conventional scoring, but Wagner kept revising it as his talent matured. When Tannhäuser sings his hymn of praise to Venus, he ambivalently changes keys, and he switches from Venus’s E major to Elizabeth’s key of E-flat. In Act II, when he’s trying to win Elizabeth’s hand, he reprises that song in E major, so we hear him singing for Elizabeth, but in the key of Venus. In this manner Wagner demonstrates the confusion over the choice between erotic and religious.
The search for balance could apply, as well, to those of us who feel a tug between career and family, or between job responsibilities and diversionary hobbies, or between the attentions of a loved one and a desire for solitude.
It was interesting to read British reviews of the tenor in Covent Garden’s title role. “Johan Botha has a physique that makes it incredible to think that he traveled to Rome on foot,” wrote one. “He has the acting range of a barrage balloon,” said another. These descriptions outweigh (pun intended) the recent criticism in the New York Times that a ballerina looked like she ate too many sugarplums.
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