Written by: Alexander Campbell
The Classical Source once again brings you a handy guide to all ten of the Metropolitan Opera productions included in this season’s international broadcast series.
Who wrote it?
Tannhäuser is Wagner’s fifth opera and represents the second work in his mature canon of stage-works. The original version of the work, ‘Dresden’, was premiered in that city in 1845. Wagner revised the ending shortly after as the work started to receive performances elsewhere in Germany. In 1861 a revival was commissioned for the Opéra in Paris. This triggered a major reconsideration by the composer, whose compositional voice and experience had developed enormously in the interim.
The Paris audiences expected ballet sequences in operas and so Wagner extended the first scene in the Venusberg for dance. There were also further changes to Act One including an extension of the Venus-Tannhäuser duet, and a re-working of the first-named of those roles to suit a mezzo rather than a soprano. Some deletions were also made in Act Two, and there were revisions of the final Act. Not surprisingly this is the ‘Paris’ version. Today, productions tend to be an amalgam of the two.
Tannhäuser took some time to capture a toe-hold in the repertory – although it has been infrequently popular. Nowadays revivals are less frequent, perhaps as there are fewer tenors capable of doing justice to the vocally demanding title role.
What’s it all about?
The libretto is Wagner’s own, but there are elements derived from authors Heinrich Heine, E. T. A. Hoffmann and Ludwig Tieck. The opera tells the tale of the 13th-Century minstrel-knight (Minnesinger) Heinrich Tannhäuser, who has abandoned the court of the Landgraf Hermann of Thuringia to seek carnal pleasure in the realm of the seductive Goddess of Love, Venus. However, the sensual excess and allure of the Venusberg and its ruler is palling. He tells Venus he wishes to leave, and she vainly tries to exert her charms to keep him close to her.
Eventually he swears by the name of Holy Mary, the Venusberg disappears and he finds himself in the woods surrounding the Wartburg Palace. A young shepherd is heard as are a group of pilgrims heading towards Rome. Hunting-horns announce the arrival of the Landgraf and his knights. Tannhäuser is recognised, and generally welcomed, although the knight Biterolf is less than effusive. When the Landgrave attempts to persuade him back to court it is the intervention of Wolfram von Eschenbach advising that the Langraf’s niece Elisabeth still loves him.
In Act Two Elisabeth is seen visiting the “Hall of Song” for the first time since Tannhäuser left. She is reunited with her hero, as Wolfram looks on – he secretly loves Elisabeth. The court assembles and a song-festival commences. The contest requires the minstrels to extemporise on the theme of the awakening of love. Wolfram is called first and he expresses the virtue of chaste love.
Tannhäuser responds that he believes sensuality is of equal importance. This provokes the other knights to communicate their various views with increasing aggression. Becoming impassioned Tannhäuser re-asserts his own experience. This is considered blasphemous. The ladies of the court flee, and the knights turn on Tannhäuser with their swords. Suddenly Elisabeth intervenes and protects him, to the consternation of all. The Landgraf banishes Tannhäuser, advising him to travel to Rome to seek Papal forgiveness.
The final Act takes place at a shrine to Mary in the woods near the Wartburg. Elisabeth mourns the loss of Tannhäuser; her life has no meaning and she is close to death. Wolfram gently offers solace which she silently rejects. Left alone Wolfram regretfully predicts her passing. A band of joyous pilgrims passes by. In their wake follows a desperate man, Tannhäuser. He relates how on reaching Rome the Pope damned him further, stating that only when his Papal staff sprouts leaves will Tannhäuser’s sin be forgiven.
He is now seeking the eternal damnation of the Venusburg, invoking the reappearance of the Goddess. Wolfram tries to intervene, but only when the funeral procession for Elisabeth passes does Tannhäuser suddenly cry out for the intercession of the Holy Mary. Venus retreats. Pilgrims announce that the Pope’s staff has sprung to green life. Tannhäuser has been forgiven.
Look out for…
Wagner’s score has some great set-pieces, notably the Overture which contrasts the themes of the pilgrims with the sensual music of the Venusberg. Tannhäuser himself has some wonderful arias, and his ‘Rome narration’ can be powerfully dramatic. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s contribution to the contest and his ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’ are baritone favourites – with good reason! Elisabeth has a celebrated contribution that kicks off the middle Act. Venus is a tricky role – in the ‘Dresden’ version she can appear somewhat charmless and shrewish; in ‘Paris’ she has music of greater sensuality. The chorus is a vital force – especially in the hugely complex assembly of the second Act and in its appearances as the pilgrims.
Who’s in it?
The title role is sung by Johan Botha, one of the few tenors of today with the stamina for the role. Eva-Maria Westbroek sings the saintly Elisabeth – her creamy lyrical soprano and her dramatic intelligence promise an exciting portrayal. Peter Mattei sings Wolfram and could well make the part his own. Michelle deYoung will be the alluring Venus. James Levine conducts this traditional production originally directed by Otto Schenk with designs by Günther Schneider-Siemssen.
When’s it on?
If you are in New York City then the matinee is live at the Met itself. Otherwise it is broadcast to cinemas on Saturday October 31.