Sunday, July 27, 2008

Richard Wagner's Cold Heaven: Tannhauser

In Tannhauser, Lohengrin, and The Flying Dutchman, the heroines and heroes are crushed, in part by Christian illusions, delusions, or confusions but mainly by what Yeats calls "the injustice of the skies." (Yeats' poem is called The Cold Heaven and I shall show it to you a little later in these postings.)

First let us review the essential plot lines of these three operatic tragedies--Wagner's greatest in my opinion.

Tannhauser, the hero of the first of these operas faces a classic choice. It is the choice that Odysseus faces when he rejects the call of the Sirens and again when he decides to flee Calypso's island paradise, and once again when he forces his men to leave the land of the Lotus Eaters--Tennyson wrote a great poem about that. You may know Shakespeare's version of the heroic choice in Venus And Adonis, or Spenser's in the Bower of Bliss episode in The Faerie Queene. In the last of these, the hero (or rather a would-be hero) has to be rescued from a life of perpetual sensual and sexual indulgence. Tannhauser has been living in just such a place, the Venusberg, deep underground where Venus the Goddess of Love has retreated in order to get away from the cold, mean, hypocritical world that the human race has created. Everyone in this part of 10th century Germany (which called itself the Holy Roman Empire--which as everyone now knows was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire) knows all about "the Venusberg" but of course no good Christian would ever go there.

It is not clear (at first anyway) why Tannhauser is living in this bower of bliss, but in any case he wants to leave. Perhaps he is bored. He wants a normal human life of strife and conflict. Venus tries to prevent him from leaving and tells him, truthfully as it turns out, what a mean, cold, hypocrital place he is returning to. Those people will destroy you, she says, and they do.

The first people Tannhauser meets on his return are his former friends and fellow knights. They are suspicious at first. They want to know if he is still one of them, still a friend. When he reassures them on this point, they want to know where he has been. He is evasive but they welcome him back nevertheless. They tell him that there is to be a singing contest in the great hall of the castle where his old flame, Elizabeth lives. She is very happy when she hears that he has rerturned and will be one of the contestants.

The subject that the singers are to sing about is love. Of course. The first singer sings the praises of spiritual love, purity, chastity--never an unchaste thought. Tannhauser listens scornfully, sneering silently to himself. When it is his turn to pick up his harp, he sings the praises of unabashed physical love--that, after all, was what he must have gone to the Venusberg to find. His audience reacts with horror, loathing, hatred. "He's been to the Venusberg!" they scream. All the men draw their swords and Tannhauser is about to slaughtered, when someone--the king, duke or maybe Elizabeth (I forget)--intervenes and says that Tannhauser ought at least to be given a chance to repent by joining the pilgrimage to Rome that is about to set out. This he agrees to do.

And he does genuinely repent. All he wants is to be received back into the Christian community.
When the pilgrims return, Elizabeth is waiting anxiously. She is joined by a friend (and would-be lover, perhaps), Wolfram. Looking for Tannhauser, she runs through the crowd of piously rejoicing people, all of whom have been forgiven by the Pope. Tannhauser is not among them. Elizabeth sinks down in despair. Time passes. Then Tannhauser appears, in rags, and tells his story. All the way to Rome he had done everything he could think of to mortify the flesh, as they say, all the while praying fervently. When he finally gets to see the Pope--he is the last in line--his prayer for forgivness is scornfully rejected. That staff of yours, says the Pope, will be sprouting leaves before you get forgiven.

Now its Tannhauser's turn to be outraged. He's had a lot of time to think about his reception by the Pope and the more he thinks about it the more he despises the hypocrisy (he doesn't use this word, but that's the point) of the Christian community that has rejected him. You can all go to hell, he says in effect; I'm going back to the Venusberg; just show me the way. Wolfram is outraged, in turn, at being asked such a question--as if he of all people might know the answer. Elizabeth, crushed, almost literally heart-broken, staggers off and dies. Tannhauser too is dying, as we hear Venus and her followers welcoming him home. As he lies there, dying or dead, Wolfram returns with stretcher-bearers carrying the body of Elizabeth. Just then, someone holds up Tannhauser's staff from which green leaves have just begun to sprout--irrelevantly: the miracle occurs but only when it is too late, as if with a shrug of divine indifference or absent-mindedness.

There was a production of this opera in Paris in 1861. According to Baudelaire, the critics and other guardians of public morality hated it and tried--literally in one instance--to laugh it off the stage. You can see why Nietzche became Wagner's great admirer and supporter, but turned against him over The Ring which, not surprisingly, he found intolerable.

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