Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tannhauser, Wagner’s Great Scandal

In opera, as in journalism, politics or entertainment, nothing sells like scandal.  “Rumor travels halfway round the world, before truth can put on it’s shoes “ this rough paraphrase holds in our time as it did in biblical times (David and Bathsheba), Oedipus or Hippolytus (tragic myth in the ancient world) or recent history. Robert Downey, Jr. did what ! (a case of actors behaving  badly) and don't forget Presidential candidates or politicians in general - where applicable. In Wagner’s case it was his artistic will verses society’s demands.
courtesy of Wikipedia
In his French exile in Paris Wagner has a grand plan – if he can’t go to Germany he’ll have Germany in Paris. He will use the Opera as a launching pad for the next stage of his career. With Tristan waiting in the wings, he’ll begin to showcase a series of works beginning with Tannhauser. It all begins well; Princess Metternich backs the plan and the Paris Opera accepts the work. But, the Opera has certain rules and expectations. No opera may be put on except in the French language; no composer may conduct his own opera (still he will supervise endless rehearsals, by one count one hundred and sixty four) then fatally there must be a ballet.
The plot of Tannhauser revolves around a dichotomy, that of the attractions and value of sacred versus profane love embodied in the figures Elisabeth and Venus. This struggle is placed in a both historical and mythic German past in which these themes take place during a singing competition. The goal is to attain artistic expression and fame as a knight and musician using these topics; from this will come redemption and fulfillment. Wagner achieves this masterfully in his middle period style. He then decides that contrary to Opera habit he will not place the ballet in the traditional second act. This spells disaster in spite of the powerful overture and the memorable arias and ensembles including the great evensong:
Wie Todesahnung Dammerung deckt die Lande ,
Umhullt das Tal mit schwarzlichem Gewande ;
Like a premonition of death, darkness covers the land
And envelopes the valley in its somber shroud;
Oh, my gracious evening star
courtesy of Wikipedia

Unfortunately he is intent on placing the ballet (for dramatic effect) in the first act and not the second. The prestigious and powerful Jockey Club is furious. They want to arrive fashionably late and leave early; before and after the act two ballet, thus enjoying the dancing of their mistresses in the corp de ballet. In response to this and expressing a general dislike of Princess Metternich, they disrupt the opera which simultaneously succeeds artistically but fails financially; Wagner never forgave Paris for this fact to his dying day.  
Tune in this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and hear the part of the scandalous night that worked and has lasted for more than 150 years. That’s Wagner’s Tannhauser, this week at noon on KPAC and KTXI.
by Ron Moore

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