Tannhäuser and eternal damnation (ROH, 8 May 2016)
The past week has been spectacular here in London, culminating today (as in 8 May) with a superb Summer day – blue skies, breezy and it apparently reached 27C! The perfect time to spend 4 1/2 hours cooped up indoors with Mr Heinrich Whinge 😉
Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert
Elisabeth: Emma Bell
Venus: Sophie Koch
Wolfram von Eschinbach: Christian Gerhaher
Herrmann: Stephen Milling
Biterolf: Michael Kraus
Walther von der Vogelweide: Ed Lyon
Heinrich der Schreiber: Samuel Sakker
Reinmar von Zweter: Jeremy White
Shepherd Boy: Raphael Janssens
Conductor: Hartmut Haenchen | Orchestra and Choir of the Royal Opera House
Director: Tim Albery
I’m going to do something slightly different this time and illustrate the main points of Tannhäuser using pop music song titles. I’ll start with a metal band because Wagner is very popular with metalheads and also the dirgey tempo fits our hero’s general mood:
That would be Venus and the feast is acted out during the overture. Babes in Venusberg lure men and then frantically spin a large dining table, over which everybody leaps. The choreography is not bad at all, in the sense that it made me want to get in shape for those kinds of leaps and smooth falls. Gentle reader, I did have a choice once: when I finished kindergarten recruiters from both the gymnastics squad and from the music school came to test us. You know which choice I made.
Venus and Tannhäuser are having words. Venus initially refuses to see Tannhäuser’s reasons, and so do we. Let’s take a look at his situation:
dude was basically a medieval rockstar who wowed everybody with his out of this world musical talent. Then one day, Venus – who could stand for a record company or for the public or for the hottest babe in the Holy Roman Empire – decides to pluck him from among the mortals – competing musicians – and plant him in her bed for awesome table spinning orgiastic action as pictured in the overture. This is exactly why everyone joins a band in the first place.
It turns out that the kitchen is a bit too hot for our minstrel’s liking so he wants out. Venus insists: why on earth would you want to return to your boring life? Tannhäuser:
Really, that’s what he says! Had we not witnessed what happened to Nirvana in 1994 it would be much harder to believe him. It still feels odd. He insists he loves Venus, that she will always have a place in his heart blah blah blah only he’s restless and he wants freedom. Or:
In so many words he wants her to break up with him because he’s too much of a coward to just leave. Venus – and us – thinks he’s being daft and tells him that once he gets back to his provincial friends they’ll envy the hell out of him and cast him out. He says he’s fine with that and quotes Cobain again.
Venus: ok then but don’t you come crawling back to me because in case you haven’t noticed I’m a goddess and we don’t do losers.
This scene sounds to me like a poor attempt at imagining what would happen in act IV of Alcina. Venus is way cool by me but Tannhäuser might be in the market for a slightly different type of woman. After much pagan talk about the nature of desire, act I ends with him stating that he is looking for the Virgin Mary.
It was good I didn’t know the finer details of the libretto beforehand because that announcement had a devastatingly amusing effect on me. I genuinely didn’t see that one coming. In hindsight I should have, I know, but I’m treasuring the fact that I didn’t. It was all pagan, orgy, desire, senses, fabulous musical talent, gods and goddeses and then bam! the Virgin Mary.
You know how in Siddhartha, the main character first learns about the world theoretically and then goes on to explore physical reality. That’s always struck me as backwards. So does this. Wouldn’t one go for the Virgin Mary type when one’s innocent and just later – perhaps during midlife crisis – indulge in the Whore option? I mean look what happens if you do it this way.
Anyway, Tannhäuser returns home and his old bandmates recognise him. After some cor blimeys they offer him the opportunity of a comeback, which is what most has-beens would want. Tannhauser only agrees when he hears that his biggest fan turned girlfriend has not been attending concerts since he’s left. It sounds a bit like they are blaming him for all around poor record sales. Elisabeth! he says, and it starts to dawn on him that she might be holding the key to his redemption [why do all the hard psychological work when somebody else can act as crutch?].
Finally he meets ex-girlfriend again. She momentarily keeps her cool and asks where he’s been and what he’s been up to.
Tannhäuser: I’ve travelled far…
Elisabeth: whew, good thing you’ve come back! I didn’t know what to do with myself whilst you were away. I don’t really care what you’ve been up to, I love you so much and I’m happy you’re back!
Tannhäuser (trying to be smooth): the god of love himself has inspired your sweet feelings!
Err, god of love, Tanny? Haha. Aren’t you lucky she’s demure and can live without inconvenient details?
After that everybody in town gathers for the battle of the minstrels. Her uncle Herrmann explains the rules and finishes his speech with this priceless gem:
Herrmann: the winner will get his prize from Elisabeth. I will personally make sure she’ll provide whatever it is the winner asks for.
You thinking what I’m thinking, Herrmann? Takes dirty uncle to another level.
Since it’s clear the poetry slam is about Elisabeth, the contestants direct their freestyle minstrelling at her. The other competitors sing about how a woman is like a beautiful flower (ie, decorative) and how love is like a still pond which they (especially the idealistic Wolfram) don’t want to disturb, because disturbing it would ruin its purity. Tannhäuser can’t take it anymore and states that, yes, love is like a perfectly still pond but he wants to drink deep to quench his endless desire:
If you don’t know the Nine Inch Nails song I urge you to listen to the lyrics because that’s exactly what Tannhauser wants to do to/get from pure pond-like Elisabeth.
Everybody: what in the world are you talking about, Tannhäuser? Are you mad? Oh, no, says Tannhäuser, you guys know nothing about love – nothing. I do, because I’ve spent quite a bit of time in
Everybody’s like OMG! God forbid! Cover the womenfolk’s ears! They do and hastily shepherd them out. But not before Elisabeth stands up for her man and says you’re all sanctimonious and bourgeois, you need to let him have his redemption. I volunteer to help him out with that [I’m sure you do, Elisabeth].
Herrmann: Elisabeth, how can you get involved with such filth? [Bud, who was going to make sure Elisabeth provided anything the winner might’ve asked for?]
Elisabeth: my life doesn’t matter!!!!! He needs to be saved!
Don’t mind me, I’m just banging my head on the keyboard. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more ridiculous after Lucia (then again, Rigoletto, anyone?). Lucia: 1840, Tannhäuser: 1845, Rigoletto: 1851. Make sure you avoid that period when the time machine becomes commercially available.
To rid the town of someone who has experienced the filth that is unimaginable pleasure/fabulous success or possibly sexual addiction, Herrmann offers to keep the foaming crowd off his back if Tannhäuser gets his SINFUL hide to Rome for some cleansing in the Trevi fountain. Ok, maybe not in that one. Tannhäuser is now back in the I’m a sinner, must have redemption mode and agrees to do so.
Whilst he’s away virtuous Elisabeth is both pining for him and praying fervently to the Virgin Mary (of course) to take her soul to the heavenly fold because without him she can’t live/she fears for his eternal damnation. Wolfram accompanies her like the equally virtuous and tenderhearted good guy that finishes last. Although he can kinda see where things are heading (unlike me), he has no heart to shake her and tell her he loves her. Maybe he realises that she’s only interested in chaps that need saving.
I’m saying I can’t see where things are heading because I grew up in a completely secular environment and I can’t wrap my mind around the the theological concept of sin. I get refraining from causing pain onto others but sin against the will of god is just bizarre to me. Thus this plot seems to me like an overly melodramatic case of boredom on Tannhäuser’s part. But I was trying very hard to rationalise it through German mores cca 1845.
Winter comes and the absolved pilgrims return from Rome. Elisabeth watches until the last one passes by and realises Tannhäuser is not among them = has not received absolution. She sort of fades away and Wolfram looks alarmed in that sedated way fatalists do. Finally Tannhäuser returns and Wolfram is suddenly angry:
Wolfram: how do you dare return among us without redemption?
Tannhäuser (with a heavy heart): don’t remind me. On second thought, let me tell you what happened. Years ago I landed in Venusberg. Mere mortals can’t imagine the kind of pleasures I experienced there. I…
[Audience: Wagner, stop reiterating the plot!
Wagner: ok, ok, but it’ll still be a 10min solo.]
Tannhäuser: … in order to repress my base desires I self harmed by walking through thorns and I denied myself liquids in 40C weather. I walked through Italy with eyes closed just so I wouldn’t be tempted by its beauty [here’s where Wagner missed including how he ran into walls because he couldn’t see anything and felt good (but not too good) about the extra pain he suffered]. I stood in the queue for the Pope and when my turn finally came I gave him the gory details of my horrible sins. The Pope’s eyes popped out of their socks and he bellowed such sins can NEVER be absolved! You will rot in HELL forever and ever amen!!! Then I passed out [from heat stroke and exhaustion?]. When I came to it was evening and the square was empty [dude, the good people of the Vatican just left him passed out in the street]. I then made my stealthy way back here because…
Wolfram: yes, Tannhäuser, why did you come back?
Tannhäuser: because I need to find my way back to
Wolfram: Shhh, shhh, Tannhäuser, someone might hear you!
Tannhäuser: oh, I don’t care anymore! I’m sick of this stupid existence among mortals! I need to return to the realm of ENDLESS PLEASURE!!!
Dude. Didn’t you puff your chest out at Venus 4 hours ago how you really missed the world, freedom and especially the Virgin Mary? But he starts singing:
And just like that, the gate of Venusberg opens.
Venus: all right, I see you’re back, hot stuff. I’ll forget your slight and take you back ‘cos I’m nice like that.
[Yes, Wagner, that’s exactly what a scorned goddess would do! Haha.]
Wolfram: noooooooooooooooooooo! You can still be saved!
Tannhäuser: I don’t wanna be saved!
Funeral procession: Elisabeth’s soul has gone to heaven. [At which point clueless me thought shit, she done kilt herself! Then I realised it can’t be, she’s really into religion so the only explaination is:] It’s a miracle! Behold, she’s using her influence with the Virgin Mary to
REDEEM TANNHAUSER’S SOUL!
Whew. Anyway 😉 the music. For my money, after the 3 solid hours worth of notes, the best bit is still the shimmery theme in the overture. Wagner agrees, as the bit returns several times, including in the final – or near final – chorus. What surprised me as novice Romantic opera listener was the Verdi-ness of it all, which I suppose comes off clearer in the auditorium rather than at home. Indeed I expected it to be less Italian sounding and louder. The choir and the singing were not Italian but the orchestra could’ve fooled me, especially considering I’m not a Verdi aficionado either. Though the singing felt German (not just the language) I was again surprised how exposed it is. Perhaps coming to Wagner after a Strauss detour can be counterintuitive. I wouldn’t have thought Wagner could be so gentle with the singers but here they rarely needed to battle the orchestra and some of the music was tender in itself. In conclusion, Wagner’s worst musical faults seem to be long-windedness and not the best knack for melody (Rossini was right). There is a place in the fiery pits of hell for him on account of his libretti.
As far as singing my interest was Christian Gerhaher (Wolfram), whom I hadn’t caught before because all his Wigmore Hall recitals sell out in the blink of an eye. In a performance where the main singers all had sharp diction on a very light orchestral background his was razor sharp. Some singers have such a way with language – especially when they’re native speakers – they can make you fall in love with it. My seat was about 1/3 up the Auditorium Slips and I heard every word he said plus all the ppps. I may have heard words I had never noticed before in the German language. Can we sign up for language lessons with him? But it wasn’t just beautifully pronounced German, it was touching voice acting too. Wolfram is a bit of Don Ottavio – perhaps more self aware – but Gerhaher gave him dignity and a lot of gentleness. In his act III interactions with Elisabeth and then Tannhauser Wolfram appeared self-effacing and generous. This role fits him well, it’s like staged lieder.
Seiffert in the title role sure has endurance and stage presence (though his Tannhäuser is a straight forward dude, more about the whore than about the virgin) though I can’t say I particularly care for his solid, piercing Heldentenor voice. In any case, 4 hours later I didn’t want to run yet. He taught me how to pronounce trännen correctly.
I heard Emma Bell got better with each show but I didn’t have anything to compare her performance with, not having encountered her before. I understand Dich, teure Halle is Elisabeth’s main aria and I paid attention. It’s the one moment in the whole opera when she’s happy and feels kinship with the music auditorium, of all things. So she’s also a vessel of music (most certainly she’s not her own person). Well, I can’t say she made much of an impression. She was all right, I think, no glaring moments. I really have a hard time gauging dramatic sopranos, not sure why – other than I don’t hear many often. I’d venture to say that her voice is not particularly big in volume though there is good heft to it as fullness goes.
I thought Sophie Koch as Venus was quite light of voice and not particularly vixenish. Now these seductress roles are funny because there can always be a debate on just how vixenish they need to be. I just felt she should to be super sultry to justify Tannhäuser’s song contest eruption of omg, you guys just don’t know LOVE! Perhaps not Carmen-sultry (though that’s another debate) but goddess-sultry. I guess she was a bit mundane, not regal enough in bearing.
Rather curiously lacking was the chorus, which to me seemed like it was often lagging behind, though it had power (too much sometimes where the sound ended up warped) and Shepherd Boy, plagued by pitch problems. The flutes were off once or twice, too, but shit happens, eh?
I was fine with the staging – the efficient kind ROH gets quite a bit these days. Nothing to rock the boat but nothing twee or annoyingly busy either. Venus had good looking babes, the spinning table, a standard “inviting” bed and Venusberg had a general garish feel though not overly so; teure Halle was filled with a broken picture frame which looked rather good, had something spilling out of it (Elisabeth’s world 😉 ); there was snow on the ground for the last scene and a rustic wooden trough (or perhaps bench). The costumes were rather blah and not about any particular time period.
In conclusion and considering it was my first time with Wagner live, I only dozed off for about 10min at the end of act II. Whether that says something about the music, the singers or the conductor I don’t know. I’m sure it says something about me – which is, this was fine but I’m not in any hurry to see it again. You keep hearing these fantastic things about how you either hate or love Wagner. I seem to have eased off the hate camp yet not quite into the love side. In spite of the 1900 word eyeroll induced synopsis, I don’t regret going but for my money there’s way better opera out there. You also need about 2 sandwiches and 2 bottles of water if you attend on a hot day.
Overheard on the way out: I really liked it but boy was it daft!