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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Orpheus in Thuringia

Why did Wagner choose to set Tannhäuser?
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This isn't exactly what happens in Tannhäuser but to be fair
it is a long opera. Art by John Byrne from The Incredible Hulk No. 315 © Marvel Comics.
Of the thirteen operas that Richard Wagner brought to the stage, it is his fifth, Tannhäuser that creates the most headaches for singers, conductors and directors. It is a Germanic update of the the Orpheus myth. Wagner distilled his libretto from theee separate medieval legends, creating a complex and flawed work that meditates on the dichotomy between reason and passion, between celestial fate and earthly lust, with an artist and musician trapped in the middle.


Like its internally divided hero, Tannhäuser exists in two very different performing versions. In both though, the core story is that of a German minstrel knight (called a minnesanger) who decides to leave the arms of the goddess Venus and return to Earthly life. However, there's a catch: he is forced to disavow Venus if he wants to stay in the mortal world. When he fails this test,  Elisabeth intercedes on his behalf, first with the knights who wish to punish him for his sexual adventures with Venus and later with God himself. As she prays for him before the celestial throne, Tannhäuser is redeemed. That she has died in order to accomplish this seems not to bother the men of the opera, or Wagner himself. 

In writing the libretto, Wagner stitched together three medieval legends. There was a legend of "Denheuser", a knight who dallied with Venus. There was also an epic song contest at the Wartburg (the second legend) a castle in Thuringia, which Wagner inserts Tannhäuser into as a contestant. There, his choice of subject (an enthusiastic last verse of his Hymn to Venus) nearly gets him killed. The third act is concerned with his attempt at redemption. His earthly love Elisabeth (the third legend: the medieval St. Elisabeth of Hungary) dies (offstage) to intercede with the almighty on his behalf. Learning of this, he dies beside her coffin, redeemed.  

Despite the obscurity of its material and the difficulties facing the tenor singing the title role, this opera has held the stage long since its debuts in Dresden and Paris. Wagner set the story to some of his richest and most inventive music, from the Pilgrims’ Chorus that opens the Ocerture to the dizzy, frenetic Venusberg music. unlike later Wagner operas, there are even arias: Eolfram’s song the the Evening Star Elisabeth’s "Dich, teure Halle" and Tannhäuser’s Rome Narration, the harrowing story of his very long walk to Italy and back.

Wagner knew how to raise a curtain, and did so with a ballet of cavorting nymphs, states and other classical creatures , frolicking in the underground realm of the Venus. She lives inside a mountain in a grotto of pleasure and delight. In the Paris version, this music is much more lurid and exotic. After Tannhäuser sings her a song of praise, he flees her court for the open air and raw moral judgments of the "real" world.

Having escaped Venus, Tannhäuser finds himself in the mountains on a spring day. He encounters  meets a group of fellow sword-wielding minstrels. He is vague about where he’s been hanging out and about to wander off when he is reminded of Elisabeth and that she would really like to see him and presumably to know where he has been for all this time. 

Elisabeth will save Tannhäuser twice, first from getting skewered by the other knights in the Act II song contest and then by dying at the end. The song contest can be a little bit of a slog. It was cut heavily in Wagner’s revisions and is usually shortened onstage. After Wolfram sings of the joys of unfulfilled love, an impassioned and sexually frustrated Tannhäuser outs himself  by singing the Hymn to Venus. This nearly gets him killed, and only Elisabeth’s intercession and his promise to go on pilgrimage to Rome saves his bacon. The third act is superb, with its account of Tannhäuser’s harrowing pilgrimage to Rome and the two appearances of the Pilgrims’ Chorus. 

The story becomes more interesting when considered as a variant on the Orpheus myth. Like Orpheus, Tannhäuser journeys to the underworld, and even starts the opera inside the Venusberg. There he confronts a classical deity of great power and potential malice. As Orpheus must not look back at the shade of his late wife, Tannhäuser is forbidden from mentioning his dalliance with Venus, doing so at real risk to his social standing and personal safety. His path in Act III leads to the light of day at last, but like the Greek bard, he loses his Eurydice along the way. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.