Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Interpreting Images - Wagner Tannhäuser analysis

Tim Albery's Wagner Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House shows how visual images can be interpreted in different ways. It's a cop-out to suggest that a picture is worth a thousand words. Everyone looks at the same image but sees different things. The real challenge is putting the images together as clues, and from there figuring out what they mean.

Our image of the medieval world is based on those few artefacts that have survived, ie castles, churches, illuminated manuscripts. Facts are that life then was brutish, grim and short, even for knights. Wartburg is a fortress built for warfare. See how it stands, dangerously perched over a steep cliff. It's a military base. In the 16th century, Martin Luther hid out here, after defying Church and temporal rulers. By Wagner's time, Wartburg was a symbol of resistance to "foreign" ideas. Since Wagner wanted to set up a new kind of opera, the implication is clear. "No Meyerbeer here". After a few days, Albery's soviet grunge chic clicked. He's using the metaphor of the Cold War as metaphor, two sides paranoid about each other. How fast we forget such things in the New Europe.

Years ago Jon Vickers pulled out of Tannhäuser because he said it was blasphemous. Compared wth Parsifal and Lohengrin, Tannhäuser's almost factual, so Vickers's reasoning should be taken with a pinch of seasoning. In many ways, Tannhäuser is an update of a medieval morality tale, good and bad pitted against each other in simple contrast. Yet listen closely at the explicitly non-religious undertones.

Zwietracht und Streit sei abgetan commands Landgrave Hermann, (no more contrariness and strife). Tannhäuser is welcome as long as he conforms. They want him because Elisabeth won't come to their revels otherwise. It's not him they care about really. But he's seen Venusberg, and alternatives to Wartburg the others can't even guess at. So they leap on him, prepared to kill, until Elisabeth intervenes. (The photo is Lauritz Melchior)

Who is Tannhäuser? He's arrogant, crabby and treats his good fortune with contempt. And yet Elisabeth adores him. Wagner treated many others in much the same way. So what's the pilgrimage? The Landgrave exiles Tannhäuser, forcing him to go to Rome to be absolved.  The pilgrimage music is so dominant that it's much more than a plot device, but fundamental to the whole idea of the opera: The pilgrims are a mass movement, old and young, submerging their individuality in heartfelt abasement. Significantly, Tannhäuser isn't one of the crowd. Maybe Elisabeth knows, for she heads off heavenwards. Nicht such ich dich, noch deiner Sippschaft Einen. (I don't want you and your type), he tells Wolfram, whom we in the audience have just heard singing the transcendent Song of the Evening Star. Tannhäuser deliberately rejects rarified, otherworldly sublimation. Old forms are hollow for him now. What he's become is a "modern" man with conflicts and angst.

This is the set Wagner designed for Venusberg. Cliffs of stone outside, corals next, but as the eye penetrates deeper, softness, lushness. With Freudian hindsight one might think of reproductive organs. Now that would upset conservative opera audiences!  In comparison, Albery's ROH proscenium is coy, diverting away from the savage soul of the opera. The arch is great visual theatre, but it doesn't connect to anything deep in the opera. Wagner's description of the scene is chaste but he and everyone else knew what Satyrs and Nymphs get up to. Tannhäuser isn't about the art of theatre so much as about, to put it bluntly, sex, and its creative power. Tannhäuser knows Venusberg is dangerous but he has to go back.

Listen carefully to Tannhäuser's big aria Inbrust im Herzen which often gets overlooked because we're so stunned by the Abendsterrn. No-one was more penitent than he, says Tannhäuser, because he values Elisabeth's virtues. Therefore, Wie neben mir der schwerstbedrückte Pilger die Strasse wallt', erschien mir allzuleicht:.Tannhäuser debased himself more than the other pilgrims, choosing the most painful route, such was the intensity of his repentance. But the Pope (ie, God's representative) refused him pardon. Shattered, Tannhäuser's going back to Venus. To Wolfram, that's just nuts, he can't  understand at all. Tannhäuser's on an emotional plane which a relatively conventional man, even a poet like Wolfram, cannot begin to comprehend.. As Tannhäuser has been telling the Knights all along, they don't know know what intensity is, since they haven't experienced the extremes of Venusberg.

What they all didn't count on was Elisabeth's own ferocious intensity. She's so extreme that she can force God into action. She is definitely Tannhäuser's soulmate. Wolfram doesn't even come close, and it's a misreading of the opera to assume otherwise. Tannhäuser and Elisabeth are Tristan und Isolde.

From pilgrim procession to funeral procession. The pilgrims bear the Pope's staff, now sprouting fresh new growth. However the Pope's staff may be staged, the concept is crucially important to the meaning of the opera. Arrogant and rebellious to the end, Tannhäuser, is saved, not by himself but by Elisabeth and what she believes in..The miracle may seem outrageous, but that's the whole idea. Toy tree? As the pilgrims would say, Hoch über aller Welt ist Gott, und sein Erbarmen ist kein Spott! (God is greater than anything on earth. Don't make fun of his mercy.)

Like my friend Mark Berry, I much preferred Albery's Tannhäuser to his Der fliegende Holländer. Similar turgid non-movement but much more awareness of deeper levels of meaning.  Despite its flaws Albery's Tannhäuser has a great deal more to offer than seems at first. There have been many Wagner productions with nil ideas or movement. Imagine, singers trapped in Dalek costumes. Then, most people admired non-movement and non-involvement. Please see my review here.

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