The Met Streams Wagner’s ‘Tannhäuser’

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Tuesday, July 21

Wagner’s Tannhäuser ~ 3Hrs 9Mins

Starring Éva Marton, Tatiana Troyanos, Richard Cassilly, Bernd Weikl, and John Macurdy, conducted by James Levine. From December 20, 1982.

When this beautiful production opened in 1982, audiences gasped as the curtain went up and then heartily applauded the sets. Otto Schenk and Günther Schneider – Siemssen deftly invoked the idyllic world of Wagner’s opera, from the goddess Venus in her erotic lair to the earthly world of medieval pageantry and song contests in the historic Wartburg Castle. The cast, including some of the greatest singing actors of their time, is outstanding. Richard Cassilly is the conflicted Tannhäuser, torn between the sensual delights of Tatiana Troyanos’s enticing Venus and the chaste love of Eva Marton’s devoted Elisabeth. Bernd Weikl is a truly noble Wolfram and John Macurdy rounds things out as the Landgrave Hermann. James Levine and the superb Met orchestra, chorus, and ballet all help bring Wagner’s masterful score to vibrant life.

This three-act masterwork features some of the Wagner’s most groundbreaking and unforgettable music, as well as the theme Wagner would revisit again and again as his career progressed — the redemptive and transcendent power of a devoted woman’s love (we saw this just last week in Tristan and Isolde). The plot harkens back to medieval history – and to age-old love triangles: Wolfram is a lovesick troubadour who hopes for the hand of the virtuous Elisabeth. She, however, has her heart set on the rebellious knight Tannhäuser. He, in turn, cannot get over his more carnal desires and the overwhelming sensual experience he has just had in the realm of the goddess Venus. 

The New York Times review put it this way: “The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Tannhauser,” with its realistic but poetically haunting sets and its adherence to 19th century staging traditions, has gone back on display at Lincoln Center. If there is a better argument for restoring musical masterpieces in a style consonant with their own times rather than tricking them out in modish clothes, it has not been made hereabouts recently. The hoary debate over whether and how much to update an old work will not be settled by this or any other production, of course, but it is good to have this Otto Schenk-Gunther Schneider-Siemssen version of Wagner’s opera in the repertory as a touchstone for one point of view.” As an unapologetic traditionalist, I agree! 

Tannhäuser – or more completely, “Tannhäuser and the Minnesingers’ Contest at Wartburg” is indeed about contests, but the really central one in this particular opera is not between the male troubadours, but rather it is between the two women – Venus, representing profane love (read, sensual and sexy) and Elisabeth, representing sacred love (read purity). The one offers our hero unending sensual pleasures — the other redemption. Hmmmmm – let’s see who wins. 

You might well be asking, since we had Meistersingers in March – what on earth are Minnesingers? Well, Minnesingers actually came first. They were high-born, courtly troubadours. They were often itinerant Knights as well who composed both words and music and performed for courtly gatherings. Meistersingers on the other hand were their bourgeois heirs – mostly from the artisan and trading classes, they belonged to Guilds and often trained Church musicians. Both Meistersingers and Minnesingers held competitions – hence the singing competitions in each opera – but while the Minnesingers tended to be free-spirited noblemen, lyric poets and composers, the Meistersingers were guild members, obliged to follow very strict rules of composition and subject matter.

So – the knight, Tannhäuser is a prominent Minnesinger in Wartburg. When he has a falling out with his colleagues, he takes off for the nearby Venusberg – a mountain suspected of containing Venus’ magical hidden grotto. As the opera begins, Tannhäuser is indeed in the thrall of Venus – a willing prisoner in her underworld paradise. A wild Bacchanal is in progress and we (along with Tannhäuser, of course) are invited to participate. It seems that Tannhäuser has been enjoying the pleasures of the Grotto for more than an entire year now and is finally sated. He considers a break for freedom. Venus deploys her more than considerable charms to entice him to stay, but he is resolute. Upon uttering the phrase “My salvation rests in Mary…” Venus and her Grotto disappear. 

Our hero now finds himself on the road back to the Wartburg as Pilgrims pass by, reminding him of God’s love in their chant. A hunting party of Minnesingers approaches and recognizes him – welcoming him back into the fold. He is reluctant but is reminded by the long suffering Wolfram that his singing won him the heart of Elisabeth, the Landgrave’s niece, who still waits for his return. After a joyous reunion with Elisabeth, a song contest on the theme of Love begins. Wolfram leads off with a solemn tribute to ideal love. Tannhäuser follows, but completely disgraces himself by singing of worldly pleasures and praising Venus. As just punishment for the outrage, he is sentenced to go to Rome as a poor pilgrim and beg the Pope for forgiveness. In a famously ungenerous judgment, the Pope declares he could no more forgive Tannhäuser than he could expect to see his own staff once again bear blossoms. Returning home without hope, Tannhäuser wishes only to find Venus again. To see why the Pope’s staff indeed has blossomed by the end of the opera, enjoy the final scenes of this mythological, Romantic work which include Wolfram’s great “O du, mein holder Abendstern” (song of the evening star), Tannhäuser’s description of his pilgrimage, “Inbrunst im Herzen,” and Elisabeth’s “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau” in which she prays for Tannhäuser’s redemption – and her own death in exchange.

Picture Credits

1. Richard Cassilly as Tannhäuser and Eva Marton as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Met, 1982. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archive.

2. Richard Cassilly as Tannhäuser and Eva Marton as Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Met, 1982. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archive.

3. Eva Marton as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Met, 1982. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archive.

4. Richard Cassilly as Tannhäuser and Eva Marton as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Met, 1982. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archive.

5. Richard Cassilly as Tannhäuser in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Met. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archive.

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