Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Richard Wagner, Tannhäuser (1845)


So Treemonisha was my fiftieth opera. Maybe not the best choice, but I'd thought it was going to be The Haunted Manor until I realized I'd screwed up the count. So. Anyway, my only point being, it seemed odd to have watched so many and have no Wagner in there. I am going to watch the Ring Cycle in due course, but somehow, I felt like it was something I should build up to a little. You don't read Finnegans Wake before Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses. You'll notice that that analogy really doesn't work at all, since there's no reason that the Ring operas should be more "difficult" to watch than any other Wagner, but doesn't it sound superficially plausible if you don't think about it at all? Superficial plausibility is what we are going for!

Tannhäuser, then. The title character (only referred to as Heinrich) is a Minnesinger who, as the opera opens, in a magical realm with Venus. Apparently, this magical realm--where human men seduced by faeries and the like are taken--is called the "Venusberg." I am guessing that whoever coined that term didn't mean it to be as hilarious as it is, but here we are. Anyway. He's gotten tired of it there, so back the real world. He meets some other Minnesingers and he agrees to go with them when they mention his old love interest Elisabeth.

So once they get there, there's a contest for Minnesingers. They're supposed to sing about the nature of love, and the others do bits about sort of airy, spiritual love. Tannhäuser mocks them for their bloodlessness, to everyone's dismay, and then he sings a song to Venus and everyone realizes that he's been to the Venusberg and they're going to execute him as he realizes his own depravity, but Elisabeth begs for mercy. So they exile him and urge him to go to Rome to beg for forgiveness. In the next act he's back, the Pope having rejected his plea for mercy, but then he's forgiven anyway thanks to Elisabeth's intervention, and he gets to die and go to heaven.

You know, presented straight like that with no kind of commentary, it probably actually looks more insane than it would if I'd put my own editorial spin on it.

I really truly seriously don't know what to make of this whole thing. During the scene of the song contest, I'm all nodding along with Tannhäuser's mockery of the other singers, yup, right there with you, dude, and then this...stuff happens, and I'm thinking, wait...what? Is this for real? His Great Crime here is having had sex, right? That's definitely what this is about. And am I supposed to be taking seriously this stuff that makes Dickens look like a crazed libertine? Is the other shoe going to drop? Well...no. It doesn't. This entire thing is played one hundred percent straight. It is really, really bizarre stuff. I mean, don't get me wrong, the music is gorgeous, during the second act climax I was torn between thinking "this is incredibly dumb" and "this sounds amazing." But...uh.

I ain't dumb! I wondered whether this was meant as some sort of sub rosa commentary, or...something. I mean, you'd think it had to be, because Tannhäuser's tribute to earthly love is just SO much more compelling than his peers' obsession with a sexless, courtly kind. But boy, if that's the case, this is the most deadpan I have ever seen anything played ever. The whole third act is just this desperately serious sin-and-redemption narrative. I looked around and found this review which backs up this notion, alleging that "the tragedy of Tannhäuser is that the minstrel is alone among the inhabitants of the Wartburg in realizing that physical and spiritual love are not irreconcilable opposites," and asserting that "he is sacrificed on the tribal altar of hyprocrisy and priggishness," but I dunno. Are you sure you're not just reading your contemporary sensibilities into that? I mean, it wouldn't surprise me if this whole thing were reflective of some kind of internal struggle on Wagner's part, but what comes out is what comes out. And...goddamn it's weird.

Boy, I haven't even said anything about the production I saw, have I? It's this one, from 1978 at the Beyreuth Festival, which is the main Wagner thing.  Poor picture quality, but not a big deal, especially given how minimalistic the sets are. Spas Wenkoff was quite good as the lead. But I don't know. Maybe a different production would bring out different elements of the opera, but from this vantage point it's hard to see how.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Dad pontificated to the effect that...

If this was not enough for the moment, don't forget that if you want to watch "The Flying Dutchman" on operavision, you'll need to do it before the 27th.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

Unless I forget my German, “the Venusberg” is supposed to mean “the Mountain of Venus”. Zeus knows why this wasn't translated in whatever version you watched, but it's not supposed to be some kind of weird portmanteau-based proper name, just German syntax being German syntax, with'em agglutinative words.

5:43 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

Well, it's a thing. People certainly use it in English.

The Flying Dutchman is downloaded; I can see it any time!

8:23 PM  

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