JAN / FEB 2013: BY SHANNON H.
Opera often deals with the issue of love vs. lust and Wagner’s Tannhaüser, based on Medieval history and folklore, is no exception.
The world of a troubadour is interesting: they acted in plays, played music for royal courts, and preached courtly love. Their exploits are found in Medieval manuscripts and tapestries. Some were fictional, famous, and infamous. In Tannhaüser, they’re minnesingers (or a singing knight). The titular character hangs out with his fellow musicians and sings songs about love and chastity, capturing the hearts of young, chaste Christian women. Unfortunately, he also sings songs about carnal lust unlike his more godly counterparts, unbeknownst to everyone else.
Tannhaüser is first seen in the grotto of the goddess of love, Venus, cavorting with her, which he’s done for a year, until he has had enough and pleads with her to let him go. Even Venus’ charms are no match for Tannhaüser invoking the Virgin Mary; he’s freed of her lustful spell in time to join his friends for a singing contest—and to meet Elisabeth, the Landgrave’s daughter whose heart is captured by him. Tannhaüser lost a singing contest years earlier but Elisabeth was attracted to him because of the song he sang. While desperately trying to stay on the straight and narrow path, Tannhaüser longs to go back to Venus’ grotto to allow himself to be captive to her, something he can’t tell his friends or Elisabeth.
The singing contest is hosted in Wartburg Castle, in the German state of Thuringia, in the town of Eisenach. Tannhaüser and his friends hope to win and hopefully secure the beautiful and chaste Elisabeth as a bride. Everyone gathers together in a huge hall and sing about being in it. Tannhaüser’s friend Wolfram, who is in love with Elisabeth, starts out singing about love and purity. Wolfram’s song proves too much for Tannhaüser, who is struggling with his sinful desires, and he breaks in with his own “love” song about the carnal desires of lust which offends all in attendance. Knights draw their swords to kill him (folks were a lot less forgiving about one’s personal demons in that day and age) but he is saved when Elisabeth comes to his aid. Tannhaüser is given a chance for redemption by traveling with a group of pilgrims to Rome to rid himself of his desires and sins (and hopefully reunite with Elisabeth). The journey he embarks on proves to be powerful in itself as he discovers the cost of his sins and the power of love and forgiveness.
Tannhaüser deals with love, lust, and how it consumes those affected by it. The titular character really loves Elisabeth but is consumed by his desires of the flesh and for the goddess Venus. Out of fear of punishment, Tannhaüser hides his sin from others only for it to eventually be exposed. The opera plays out as a morality tale (and that’s something to take note of, considering Richard Wagner, the opera’s composer, was a known adulterer); one’s secrets will eventually be made public sooner or later. It also touches on the issue of lust vs. love, in a sense, the goddess Venus vs. Elisabeth. Tannhaüser is torn between both worlds; he desires the carnality of flesh and real love from a young Christian woman. In a way, it’s a strange love triangle.
Richard Wagner plays Tannhaüser’s struggle out well, especially when he tries to break away from Venus and her minions of pleasure by pleading with her to release him from his spell. When she refuses, the duet continues with Tannhaüser singing higher each time, emphasizing his desperate attempt to get back to reality (a difficult task for this particular role, even with seasoned opera singers) and Venus’ singing is mesmerizing and hypnotic. And while Venus could care less about Tannhaüser since she’s simply using him and his weak state of mind, Elisabeth truly loves him to the point where she makes sacrifices for him and his spiritual standing with God, and in doing so becomes a Christ figure. After a previous singing contest where Tannhaüser lost soundly, Elisabeth waited for him to return, illustrating faithfulness in love. (This reminds me of scripture from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.) She plays a significant role in Tannhaüser’s redemption, but with a huge cost on her part as well as his. Wagner makes it clear that Tannhaüser desperately yearns for the love of the virginal Elisabeth and more importantly, salvation in God but is held back by his desires of the flesh.
Tannhaüser has many different facets and themes; friendship, love, and the cost of sin. One of them is the power of love and lust and how both can make or break an individual’s will. When faced with his sins, the titular character tries to mentally shove them out of his mind and embark on a pilgrimage to Rome in the hopes that his transgressions will be absolved so he can enjoy a normal life like everyone else and, if possible, marry his true love.
The opera itself is musically powerful, from the overture to the aria, “O du mein holder abenstern” (“O thou, my gracious evening star,” sung as a prayer to God by Wolfram to keep Elisabeth safe). It’s filled with folklore and history that predates Shakespeare. The story teaches that love and lust are two different things, for lust lacks patience, kindness, and forgiveness and love has no place for instant, selfish gratification. ■