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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Pilgrimage to Baltimore

From:

Walter Meyer <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 27 Mar 2000 17:04:57 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

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text/plain (113 lines)

The Wagner Society of Washington pulled off a coup yesterday (3/26/2000)
in getting a large busload of listeners from loading points in Virginia
and Maryland to Baltimore's Lyric Opera House in time to hear a background
lecture and to enjoy the matinee performance of *Tannhaeuser*, and then
getting us back, sustained with snack bags of munchies, iced tea and an
apple each, before we got back home between 8 and 9 pm for a late supper.

Not having listened to *Tannhaeuser* very much, and not at all in the last
ten years or so, I pulled out my Sinopoli/Domingo/Studer/Baltsa/(Andreas)
Schmidt/Bonney recording, and was amazed at what I had been depriving
myself of.  What I had dismissed as an interesting "work in progress"
leading up to later masterpieces was, I realized, itself worthy in its own
right of the creator of *The Ring*, *Tristan* and *Meistersinger*.  (I'd
foolishly overlooked *The Flying Dutchman*, an earlier, but also belated
discovery.)

Recognizing the names of historical musicians in the list of characters,
I wondered whether Tannhaeuser was similarly an actual figure.  A musical
dictionary confirmed that he actually lived (c.1205-1270), led an
"adventurous" life, but it was a fellow passenger on the bus who filled
me in with more.  In the opera Wagner, apparently conflates two singers
of ancient reputation, Tannhaeuser, and Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which
probably accounts for everybody in the Landgrave's entourage calling him
"Heinrich".  It's Tannhaeuser who is associated with the story of having,
among his adventures, bedded down with Venus in the Venusberg, thereby
*very* seriously jeopardizing his immortal soul, for which, in different
accounts he either did or did not obtain absolution.  Heinrich, it was,
who competed in the contest at the Wartburg (which, according to Ernest
Newman's *Stories of the Great Operas*, was not a singing but a poetry
contest).  Not having had the benefit of Newman's knowledge, the earlier
accounts had Heinrich singing such circles around the other greats like
Walther von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach, that he was
suspected of having sold his soul for his talent, menaced by the armed
knights, whom he eluded in a puff of smoke.  Like a link on a Web page,
the character to whom Heinrich is supposed to have sold his soul is named
Klingsor, but he's in another opera.  Other chroniclers list Klingsor as
one of the knights participating in the Wartburg competition.  Oh yes.
It turns out that Elizabeth, whose intercession secures Tannhaeuser's
salvation in the opera is St.  Elizabeth of Hungary.

Armed with all this information, much of it new, I came to hear Lou
Santacroce (who we were told has a public radio program which is
unfortunately not broadcast in this area) give his background lecture.
He believed that the Tannhaeuser story as presented in Wagner's opera
illustrated the Hegelian principle of a thesis calling forth its antithesis
w/ which it resolves into a synthesis which becomes a new thesis calling
forth in turn its own antithesis, etc., etc.  While, with all respect due
to Mr.  Santacroce, I think he may at time have tried to fit the opera into
a procrustean bed, he did provide some interesting insights.

In broad terms, he viewed the original thesis here to be orthodox
Christian religion; its antithesis, neopaganism, to be synthesized in the
Renaissance.  Tannhaeuser, offered the best of both worlds in the love of
Venus and of (St.) Elizabeth, is satisfied by neither, leaving the latter
to seek out the former, only to leave her again for his first love to whom
he can't restrain himself from acknowledging the bliss he enjoyed with his
second.  The story here is not so much one of *redemption*.  Wagner, a
"libertine" (Santacroce's term; perhaps misapplied; his affair w/ Cosima
had her first husband's blessing; his attraction to Mathilda von
Wesendonck, if erotic, was never consummated), an anti-Catholic atheist
(I'll have to take the lecturer's word for that) had warned in his letters
against reading Christian messages in *Tannhaeuser* and *Parsifal*.
Instead of redemption, the opera represents a *resolution* through the
good offices of Elizabeth, a synthesis.  She it is who, in contrast to
the unbending forces of religion, represented by the Landgrave on one side,
and Venus on the other, is willing to yield and be flexible.  Conceding
the gravity of Tannhaeuser's sin, she also remembers the doctrine that
redemption is always available to the truly penitent.  And through her
intervention, Tannhaeuser is absolved, despite the Pope's declaration to
the contrary, in witness whereof the barren staff again sprouts leaves.  If
Santacroce views this as symbolizing the Renaissance, why should I argue?

Mr.  Santacroce wound up his presentation by noting the seamlessness of
*Tannhaeuser*.  While Gluck had already moved opera into that direction,
as well as Verdi, Wagner, most clearly made the most dramatic change from
opera consisting of episodes comprising arias, recitatives, duets, more
recitatives, etc., into a continuous stream of music, interrupted only by
the end of the acts, constituting, with his own texts his
*Gesamtkunstwerke*.

Christian Badea conducted.  Werner Herzog was the director.  Venus was sung
by Petra Lang; Tannhaeuser, by Jon Fredric West; Wolfram, by James Johnson,
and Elisabeth, by Eva Johansson.  It was announced before the opera started
that Mr.  West (Tannhaeuser) was suffering from severe throat problems but
would sing anyway.  He may have had the throat problems.  (I wouldn't have
been able to notice.) But it was the people all over the audience who were
doing the coughing and sneezing all over the hall, all through the opera.
Luckily I had listened to the opera at home during the preceding two days
and I was able to accomplish something corresponding to a CD player's
memory sampling to hear through the distractions.  I greatly enjoyed the
performance finding all of the singers wonderful.  This included Venus'
entreaties which changed to threats which changed to cowering retreat
before superior moral force; Elisabeth's moving and stirring quelling of
the lynch mob out to get Tannhaeuser when they learn where he'd been,
Wolfram's song to the Evening Star (identified with the Virgin Mary in
medieval days, but now known to be the planet Venus!) and Tannhaeuser's
bitter account of his failed mission to Rome.  And the orchestra did
justice to the many instrumental passages from the overture through to the
emotion-charged end.

If anyone cares to know, the sets, which were Herzog's idea, underwhelmed
me.  Consisting almost entirely of curtains behind which fans caused
continued billowing in different places, which a review suggested was to
illustrate the story's progress, they served simply to distract me.  Nor
was I impressed by the brilliant white costumes everyone but Venus (who was
in scarlet) was wearing.  Almost every scene looked like a Ku Klux Klan
meeting, an impression which wasn't dispelled by the helmets which reminded
me of the headgear worn by the Teutonic Knights in Eisenstein's *Alexander
Nevsky*.

I had a great time, nevertheless.

Walter Meyer

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