A Night at the Opera

10 October 2015

I saw a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera House two nights ago, and I’m still exhausted!

I have to marvel at the energy and stamina of everyone involved, onstage, backstage, and in the orchestra pit; what a feat to stay focused and deliver at the highest level for over three hours, closer to four. Heldentenor Johan Botha, who sang the punishing title role, sounded as fresh in Act III as he did in Act I.

It was a novelty to see such an old-fashioned production. Otto Schenk’s production dates from 1977, and hasn’t been seen at the Met since 2004. Who knows when — or if — it will be seen again?

I find it refreshing to see a production which simply presents the opera itself, and not some director’s revisionist take on it. This production looked the way the music sounded.

Tannhäuser has some glorious music in it. It’s relatively early Wagner, and he’s still emulating the influences of Weber and Meyerbeer, and even early Bel Canto styles.

The story and characters are firmly rooted in 19th-Century attitudes, and these can prove troublesome to a modern audience. Our protagonist is the 13th-Century troubador (Minnesinger) Tannhäuser, although nobody ever calls him Tannhäuser; they all address him as Heinrich. Call him what you will, our hero doesn’t know what the heck he wants out of life. Wherever he is, he wants to be somewhere else. If he’s in the Venusburg, he longs for sunlight and trees and grass and a life of purity and virtue. If he’s back in the real world, rubbing shoulders with his pious friends and colleagues, he longs for the excitement and sensuous pleasure to be found in the embrace of Venus, the goddess of love and lust.

Tannhäuser is loved by Elisabeth, the chaste daughter of the Landgraf of Thuringia. She has fallen for his sweet voice, and she pines for him even after he’s walked out on her to hunt for thrills. When he comes back, disgraces himself by singing of carnal love in the Song Contest and disses her in the process, she falls for him even harder. Eventually she wastes away and dies, and her death ostensibly redeems Tannhäuser, who hardly deserves such a redemption. Why would she forfeit her own life, happiness, and fulfilment? Why doesn’t she give herself to someone who will appreciate her properly, love her and honor her? Where’s her sense of self-respect? Wolfram adores her, he too has a lovely voice, and he’s a gentleman to boot. But, alas, baritones rarely if ever get the girl.

This whole story rings false, and displays a rigid world view, even as it professes to be revolutionary. Women are either saints or sluts.

With all this in mind, should we cast Tannhäuser aside as hopelessly outmoded? Hell, no! It’s important that we see such things and recognize them for what they are. Seeing operas like this are a history lesson, and I think opera houses should show them the way museums show masterpieces of the past; unchanged, unvarnished, and unedited. Let the audience make the connection between the past and the present.