One of the many pleasures of not having regular employment is that you can go the opera on a Tuesday afternoon. By 1pm I was in my seat in at the Clapham Picture House ready for the encore of Saturday’s live broadcast of Tannhauser from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Wagner’s music gets deep inside you, stirring the most basic emotions. As a consequence stories and characters that would be absurd without the music become absorbing. Tannhauser is the story of the struggle between true or sacred and profane love, although, of course, it’s not that simple.
The first scene is an orgy among nymphs and fauns, a complicated ballet of beautiful young people. There’s no doubt about what they are up to, ceaselessly. Tannhauser (confusingly called Heinrich), a German knight, is asleep in the arms of Venus, the goddess of love, in an underworld. Unfortunately Tannhauser is a little fat man with a scruffy beard and Venus a large, mature, busty woman. Both have beautiful voices, but the contrast with the dancers is extreme. It doesn’t seem like a powerful picture of erotic love.
Venus has provided Tannhauser with every kind of erotic pleasure, but he is getting tired of them, longing for sunlight, meadows, fresh air. He has decided to leave. Venus is furious. If he wants to return to deluded humans and leave the land of heroes, then she’ll curse him. She’ll make him return, but he insists he won’t. The Virgin Mary will save him. The mixing together of old gods and Christian symbols is very Wagnerian. Crudely the old gods seem profane and the Christian symbols good, but Wagner always seems ambivalent.
In the next scene Tannhauser is above ground and discovered by the knights who were his colleagues. They wonder where he’s been. They persuade him to come and met Elizabeth, his love before he descended into Venus’s heaven/hell.
Act II begins with Eiizabeth returning after a long absence to the Singing Hall, where singing competitions are held. She’s full of joy that Tannhauser is returning but understandably nervous. (She too is a large, busty, mature woman, who unfortunately is clearly older than the man playing her father. These things don’t matter in Wagner.) They embrace, but without much enthusiasm. Tannhauser doesn’t confess where he’s been, saying that a curtain of forgetfulness has wiped out everything.
In the singing competition the challenge to the singers is to describe true love. Wolfram, a wonderful baritone, goes first ( in German, of course):
As I look around on this noble assembly,
what a glorious sight makes my heart glow!
So many heroes, valiant, upright and wise,
like a proud oakwood, splendid, fresh and green;
and I see ladies lovely and virtuous,
a fair garland of most fragrant flowers.
My gaze is dazzled by this display,
my song is silenced before such beauteous lustre.
Then I raise my eyes to one single star
up in the heavens which shines on me:
my spirit is comforted by that distant radiance
and my soul devoutly sinks in prayer.
And lo! I behold a fountain of delights
on which my spirit gazes, filled with wonder:
from it there flows blissful joy
by which my heart is inexpressibly refreshed.
O never may I sully that fountain
or cloud its limpid waters with impure thoughts!
In devotion I would sacrifice myself
and gladly shed the last drop of my heart’s blood.
You nobles may gather from these words
how I regard the purest essence of love.
It’s not clear whether the object of this love is a woman or God, but what is clear is that there can be no impure thoughts in true love. Plus you must be willing to make sacrifices and die.
Tannhauser, recently come from the intense erotic pleasures of Venus thinks Wolfram’s song poppycock. He leaps up and gives his idea of true love.
I too may count myself lucky enough
to see what you, Wolfram, saw!
Who should not know that fountain?
Hearken, its virtues I will cry aloud!
But I cannot approach its source
without feeling ardent longing:
my burning thirst I must assuage
by confidently pressing my lips to it:
I drink down bliss in full draughts,
unhindered by any hesitation;
for the fountain is inexhaustible,
as my longing is insatiable.
Thus I constantly refresh myself at the spring
so that my craving may burn for ever:
know then, Wolfram, how I regard
the true nature of love!
Again no object is mentioned, but the mention of lips (and our recent exposure to Venus) makes us think a woman is involved here; in fact “the source” where he assuages his “burning thirst…by confidently pressing [his] lips to it” is surely her cunt.
The audience are outraged and Elizabeth deeply hurt. But full of what we take to be true love she begs the knights not to kill him but to give him a chance to join a pilgrimage to Rome and seek redemption. She is willing to die if he can be saved.
In Act III Elizabeth is waiting for Tannhauser to return. She’s struggling to resist “earthly longing.” We are not convinced that she’s doing the right thing (or at least I wasn’t); couldn’t some sort of mixture of what Venus and Elizabeth have to offer be true love.
Almighty Virgin, hear my plea!
Queen of glory, to thee I call!
Let me turn to dust before thee,
O take me from this earth!
Let me enter, pure and spotless,
into thy blessed kingdom!
If ever, engrossed in vain fancies,
my heart turned away from thee,
if ever a sinful desire
or earthly longing rose within me,
I strove with untold anguish
to stifle it in my heart!
The pilgrims arrive, but Tannhauser is not among them. Wolfram offers her comfort. She hesitates but then turns him down.
She leaves, and Tannhauser arrives in a sorry state. He’s taken the hardest road in his help for salvation, but the Pope has turned him down brutally:
If you have felt such sinful desires
and warmed yourself at Hell’s fires,
if you have dwelt within the Venusberg,
you are forever accursed!
As this staff in my hand
will nevermore put forth a living leaf,
so from the burning brand of Hell
salvation never will bloom for you!
As heaven is out he naturally wonders about hell, returning to Venus. She appears with couples of writing lovers on either side of her.
If you again approach my realm,
your pride shall be forgiven;
the fount of pleasure will flow for you forever
and never shall you fly from me!’’
He’s very tempted, but as he’s about to enter hell he hears singing from Elizabeth’s funeral cortege. Her body is carried in. Venus disappears. Tannhauser dies too. Moments later a staff that has grown leaves is brought in by pilgims. There is redemption, even for the worst of sinners.
But this is also yet another example of liebestod, love death, the consummation of lovers that comes only in mutual death. In 2015 we are still keen on redemption, even if it’s secular redemption, but we are less keen on liebestod. Or are we? I think of Muslim suicide bombers killing themselves certain that they will then find heaven in the company of virgins. (Rough on the virgins, I can’t help thinking.)