Great moments in opera: Tannhäuser

February 4, 2010

Tannhäuser was one of Wagner’s early efforts to bring quasi-medieval German Romanticism to the stage.  It tells the story of a group of thirteenth-century minnesingers who compete at song for the hand of a beautiful woman, Elisabeth.  Among them is Tannhäuser, a man who is under the spell of the goddess Venus, but who dearly wishes to forsake his idolatry.  During the opera he renounces his devotion to the pagan goddess, and makes a pilgrimage to Rome to seek forgiveness for his sins.  Absurdly, the Pope refuses to absolve him, but, returning to Germany, his love for Elisabeth accomplishes what the pilgrimage could not, and he is redeemed.

As a theological statement, Tannhäuser has some problems; musically, on the other hand, it is very good.  At over 3 hours in length, it does not exactly bounce along, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.  The music has a sweet quality, especially in the first Act dialogue between Venus and Tannhäuser, and the religious elements of the plot are treated with considerable tenderness.  The weakest scenes, ironically, are those in which the minnesingers attempt to overwhelm Elisabeth with the beauty of their songs.

The most famous musical sections of Tannhäuser are probably the overture and the pilgrim’s chorus.  I was impressed, however, by two of Elisabeth’s arias.  The first, Dich, teure Halle, is her Act II entrance aria, in which she salutes the great hall where the singers will compete for her hand and anticipates the triumph of Tannhäuser.  It is sung here in a concert performance by the wonderful soprano Gundula Janowitz (text and translation):

In Act III Tannhäuser has gone on pilgrimage to Rome, and Elisabeth sings Allmacht’ge Jungfrau, a touching petition to the Blessed Virgin for his safe return (text and translation; scroll down).  I cannot find a decent “moving picture” performance, so we are stuck with this outstanding rendition by Regine Crespin:

Wagner, who has a reputation for glacial and oversized operas, has pleasantly surprised me with Tannhäuser, and I intend to look at some of his other operas in the weeks ahead.

7 Responses to “Great moments in opera: Tannhäuser

  1. Gustave Dedronez Says:

    Do you think this opera to be worthy of consistent hearing and seeing? It seems to me the theological difficulities are too great for a good Catholic to approve of this work. The music is wonderful (like almost all Wagner), but as an opera, a musical play, it seems to be rather unfortunate.

  2. cburrell Says:

    It is true that Tannhauser is not without its problems. For a Catholic, the most objectionable element would probably be the fictional Pope’s refusal to grant absolution to the pilgrim, which seems unmerciful. But even this is a fairly minor fault; we are not in the realm of heresy.

    On the other hand, the general action of the opera is morally admirable: a man struggles free of enslavement to lust (represented by Tannhauser’s devotion to Venus) in order to attain a pure and innocent love (represented by his devotion to Elisabeth).

    As usual, whether in opera or film or literature, we must each let our conscience be our guide. My general rule of thumb is this: if I believe a particular work is inappropriate for me, it probably is, but I do not presume to draw that line for others, except in very egregious and obvious cases.

  3. Gustave Dedronez Says:

    My objection is more to the opera’s idea that Elisabeth’s intercession, rather than Tannhauser’s repentance, is what saves Tannhauser. The idea of “redemption through woman” is an extremely common one in Wagner’s works, and here seems to be rather theologically messy, and thus a bad ending to a story about redemption. The music may perhaps be good enough for one to ignore the story, but it seems to me that the story ends in a bad way, and that the story is thus bad. Thoughts? Am I too strict? I just am thinking that I can’t really participate fully in the story because of the falsehood of the ending.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Those are good observations, Gustave. I don’t disagree with you. Again, whether this opera, or any other entertainment, is suitable fare is, I think, a matter for one’s own conscience. It is possible to listen to an opera, especially one in a language one does not understand, simply for the glory of the music, and without paying much attention to the story. Of course, once one knows the story, that becomes harder to do.

    My own view is that few works of art are wholly praiseworthy, and few are wholly blameworthy. We seek the good where we can find it, and we put up with the rest. For each of us there will be a line beyond which the morally problematic elements or the aesthetically deficient elements in a particular work make it not worth our time and effort, but where that line is to be drawn will differ from one person to another.

    In the case of Wagner, the question of whether one should overlook problematic elements of the work is especially acute, for Wagner quite explicitly conceived his music-dramas as unities. I expect that he himself would have frowned on someone, like me, who chooses to enjoy the music (to the extent that I do enjoy it) and to disregard the story. How that affects your decision about Tannhauser will depend on your attitude to Wagner! Personally, I rather like the idea of irritating him.

    • Gustave Dedronez Says:

      Thanks for a wonderful response. Wagner’s unitive approach is something I did have in mind…and I love your reaction to it! To irritate Wagner is probably an admirable thing. I agree that with opera it sometimes is worth ignoring the story as a story, instead just regarding specific emotional situational elements. The music is I think worth the struggle to ignore and not be misled by some problems in the story. Thanks for the good advice. I would say that many works of art are clearly immoral, in having a bad influence on the soul, but you are I think right about the difficulty of judgement about unclear things in art (In my view best left up to the wisest and best if one’s conscience does not help a whole lot). Details of the story of Tannhauser I believe should be ignored if one wants to appreciate it as art (mostly music) without risking being influenced by certain falsehoods in the specifics of the story. I do believe something is lost if we listen to Wagner entirely apart from the story, but it is sensible to use the wide outlines of the story rather than the details if one wants to appreciate it without allowing any risk of falsehood to influence his soul.
      Thanks for very enlightening and helpful comments!

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