Opera Abbreviated: Tannhauser

Oct 27, 2015

The Metropolitan Opera presents Richard Wagner's Tannhauser, live in HD from the Met in New York, in movie theaters worldwide on Saturday, October 31 at 1 pm.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) reinvented the language of music through his advanced tonalities and by giving the orchestra the leading role in his operas, for which he used the term gesamtkunstwerk​; the total work of art.

Tannhauser was Wagner's fourth opera and his second big success. By 1845, the composer had found a temporary home in Dresden, with a theater, orchestra and chorus at his disposal. It became easy to move Heinrich Tannhauser from  Venus's grotto of love to the hall of the pure Elisabeth and back again. 

Tannhauser reflects the composers' love/hate relationship with religion and his devotion to eroticism. An unhappy marriage to the actress Minna Planer-- a ready-made 'Sugar-Mama'-- encouraged Wagner to  chase well-connected women. If their husbands were wealthy, so much the better. Eventually Wagner took up with the daughter of Franz Liszt, who was married to his disciple and dearest friend. This liaison with Cosima von Bulow came after the initial success of Tannhauser in Dresden in 1845.

Wagner's varied love life is relevant. Tannhauser depicts a man torn between hedonism (Venus) and faith (Elisabeth). It could be that faith wins in the end, even if Venus has moved her grotto elsewhere and Elisabeth had already been gathered into the arms of the Virgin Mary.

On the way, Wagner gives us a huge chorus of pilgrims and later the minor nobility the voice of people of faith or people who aspire to faith and art. It is a difficult journey, and a tuneful journey. With Tannhauser, the composer had not yet moved the orchestra to the center of his work. While Venus, Elisabeth, and Wolfram are given great music to sing, it is the title character whose music is long, high and nearly impossible to bring off well.

A robust tenor is punished vocally to the point of exhaustion, of strain in a role and character torn between desire and redemption. For Wagner's Tannhauser, the struggle to sing his music is part of the characters' story.

Happily, the audience is not asked to choose between sex and faith. Indeed, if Tannhauser can't live with both, he enjoys enough in life to find redemption in death. A peaceful, tuneful death after a journey through hedonism, enjoyment, and pain.