Thoughts on “Tannhäuser”

On October 31, I attended a “Live in HD” showing of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Tannhäuser.” It was a very good production. The costumes, scenery, and action strove for authenticity, and achieved it, IMO — unlike some opera and theater productions where the director decides to remove the piece from its intended time and place, usually to the detriment of the work. The story of the knight and minstrel who spends a year with Venus in her subterranean abode, returns to the above-ground world, is disgraced when he reveals that he has been with Venus, goes on a penitential pilgrimage to Rome, is at first rebuffed by the Pope, but finally pardoned was very moving as sung and acted, above all in the scenes where Elisabeth pleads for him with the knights, where he describes his pilgrimage, and where his pardon is proclaimed by the arrival of the Pope’s miraculously leafed-out staff. Not having seen James Levine in several years, it came as a shock to see him in a motorized wheelchair, looking at first glance like Stephen Hawking, with arm movements that seemed on partially controlled. But he clearly still knows the music and can communicate to the players and singers. So it’s admirable that he continues to practice his profession in spite of his physical limitations.

There will be an “encore showing” of the performance in various theaters on November 4, and I recommend seeking it out.

But I’ve been thinking about how Wagner treated the story, which is his mixture of two sets of legends. It’s a really effective drama. Still I have my problems with Wagner, relating both to the scenario and to specific language.

First, the language. An important element of the story is Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution from the Pope for his sin. I find it remarkable that Wagner always uses circumlocutions in referring to the Pope. It’s never “Pope” but “him who speaks God’s judgment,” “him through whom God reveals himself.” Can’t he bring himself to say, “Pope?” I  suppose the circumlocutions  are more poetic, and indicate the authority ascribed to the Pope, and therefore the importance and validity of the pilgrimage. But still, I’m surprised.

A bigger deal for me, is Wagner’s attitude here and elsewhere to the pre-Christian deities. Both here and in Lohengrin, there is a battle between Christianity and those pre-Christian deities, conceived as still existing. It seems true enough that vestiges of pagan notions, and even pockets of pagan belief, persisted in Christianized parts of Europe. So in creating a drama from legends about the early 13th Century, he may be using elements of folk culture of the period. In Tannhäuser, the conflict is between carnal love, represented by Venus, and chaste love, represented by Elisabeth. While chaste love is victorious in this opera, and in “Parsifal,” it is quite the contrary in “Tristan und Isolde.” Of course, chaste love and carnal love coexist in holy matrimony, but you won’t get that from Wagner.

Then there’s the “Ring Cycle.” It treats the Norse gods as real but eventually destroyed because of their greed leading to various acts of treachery, adultery, and incest. At its center, though it celebrates, not so much this destruction of the gods, but the union of Wotan’s daughter with his grandson. Hearers are led to have sympathy for the semidivine offspring of Wotan and to be sorry for their deaths.

So, I’m bemused by Wagner’s theology, as I understand it, but good theater often presents challenging ideas, and the dramatic story and fine music make Tannhäuser worth seeing.


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