Operapedia: Tannhäuser
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Operapedia: Tannhäuser 

HENRY STEWART demystifies Wagner’s legend of love, lust and redemption.

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The Basics  

The titular troubadour gets into hot water because he’s torn between his love for the maidenly Elisabeth and the worldly-wise goddess Venus, a dilemma he confesses at a singing competition.

First Performances
The opera had its premiere on October 19, 1845, in Dresden, but Wagner tinkered with it for decades. It was finally published in 1860, with an altered ending, and we call this “the Dresden version.” That’s in contrast to the version that had its premiere in Paris in 1861 with substantial alterations at the request of Emperor Napoleon III, including a ballet and more changes to the finale. Wagner then made even more revisions to the final scene for 1875’s Vienna premiere. (This is more or less “the Paris version,” the one most regularly performed today.) Three weeks before his death, in 1883, Wagner was still dissatisfied, telling his second wife, Cosima, that his Tannhäuser wasn’t good enough. Hmm. Maybe it needed a different ending?
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The opera proved popular in Germany; in France, not so much. At the Paris premiere, elites were peeved that the ballet came so early, because they liked to show up late to watch the ballerinas perform before meeting them backstage for a little “barre work,” so to speak. The French also hated the Austrians, particularly Wagner’s then-patron, Princess Pauline von Metternich. Audiences interrupted the premiere and soon were bringing hunting whistles. After that, Wagner gave up on being accepted into Paris opera society and would resent the French for the rest of his life.

In Pop Culture
Chuck Jones’s legendary Looney Tunes short “What’s Opera, Doc?” spoofs Wag­ner’s Ring cycle in imagery and character, but much of Milt Franklyn’s musical arrangement actually borrows from Tannhäuser. In fact, thanks to Michael Maltese’s lyrics for the song “Return My Love,” set to the pilgrims’ chorus, some of us can’t hear that melody without also hearing Elmer Fudd’s “O Bwoon-hild-uh, yaw so wuv-wy.” It’s actually kind of a problem!
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Surprise Showstopper
The bacchanal ballet that follows the overture, a sort of second overture that introduces the debauchery of the goddess’s lair, is known as the Venusberg music, and Wagner wrote in his autobiography that while he was writing it he was “troubled by excitability and rushes of blood to the brain,” leaving him bedridden for days. This might sound like nineteenth-century histrionics — more suitable to Elisabeth, who dies suddenly from sadness — unless you’ve actually heard the music, whose swirling scoring and stormy rhythms form some of the most depraved passages ever set to stave paper, making Tannhäuser’s central conflict palpable by countering the libretto’s piety with the real appeal of hell’s delights. Just hearing it makes us dizzy, too!
Spoiler Alert
Part of Wagner’s genius is the complexity of his characters, who prevent his plots from slipping into pat happy endings. Tannhäuser loves Elisabeth, but he also loves Venus; the latter he rejects, and then the former keels over. The women represent contrasting sides of prefeminist femininity — “spotless virginity” and, uh, its opposite. (This duality has sometimes been highlighted by having the same soprano sing both roles.) The dichotomy is not uncommon to opera; consider Carmen, the lusty Gypsy, against Micaela, the vanilla bean. In fact, almost all opera — heck, most art! — could be reduced to the tension between our Dionysian and Apollonian impulses, making Tannhäuser a textbook example of the form.


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Time and Place
Stories of supernatural beings luring hapless men into pleasure palaces are common to Northern European folklore; Washington Irving Americanized the genre to create “Rip Van Winkle.” Wagner, who wrote his own librettos, set his twist in the thirteenth century and mined two German legends — the minstrels’ song contest at Wartburg Castle and the tale of the title knight, who stumbles into sybaritism and then asks forgiveness from the Holy Father, who responds with a variation of “when hell freezes over!”

Hit Tune
Tannhäuser’s frenemy Wolfram has a hauntingly sweet eleven-o’clock aria known as the song to the evening star, which has become a lyric-baritone anthem. Bryn Terfel in particular teases out its eye-watering beauty. (For its conformity to French and Italian opera traditions, Wagner later dismissed the tune as a “bone for the dog.”) But the show’s most enduring music is the overture, which turns the hushed melodies of the recurring pilgrims’ chorus into a lushly orchestrated Romantic masterpiece. The protagonist of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray sees in this prelude “a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul.” To the poet Baudelaire, “It seemed to me that I already knew this music. It seemed to me that it was my own music.”

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The Performance We Wish We’d Seen
The moral of 1991’s backstage-drama movie Meeting Venus, which argues that art needs dictators and not democracy, is that great music and musicianship are what matter — not union rules or provocative productions. Still, we’d like to see the film’s boldly conceived staging of Tannhäuser, which the audience only ever catches in glimpses — a bath of red light, Venusberg dancers in black-leather underwear, Glenn Close as Elisabeth….

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Something Completely Different
For a 1994 production in Munich, David Alden gave the Venusberg the haute dépravation more recently seen in the Capitol in The Hunger Games, with copious topless women, naked performers painted bright colors and assorted carnival figures and freaks. But what once had driven audiences to jeers proved tame next to Burkhard C. Kosminski’s 2013 Düsseldorf production, which, during the overture, lowered naked bodies into gas chambers filling up with fog, and which turned Venus and Tannhäuser into Nazis who execute a family during the ballet. Kosminski’s concept was so reviled the company canceled the rest of its run.


Where It Is This Season  

This month, you can catch the tail end of Chicago’s run of Tim Albery’s production. The opera will also be performed during the spring throughout Germany — Berlin in April, Bielefeld and Meiningen in May and Leipzig in June. You could follow it, like a groupie! Ein Tannhäuserkopf auf die Eurail! spacer 


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