Aug 192011

Tannhauser opened on the 9th at the L’Opéra Grainier to a cautious audience full of rumors and smoke about the large Germanic Wagner, whose bludgeoning explorations in music seem ready to smash or reinvent all of Europe at a stroke. The place was packed. Gentlemen were hard put to maintain their dignity in the jostling crowd which, although well-heeled, was visibly affected by the performance as Tannhauser, a wandering minstrel and poet, comes to Venusberg through a plunging cave extraordinarily brought off by the canny set designer Mallot. In Venusberg, the singing Tannhauser sees Venus herself at her bath and becomes unutterably smitten and turns into a sinning Ulysses dallying with a coy Calypso. All his holy songs turn to pagan paeans. Eventually, through an accidental word, he is reminded of his faithful Elizabeth whom he left in the world above; he exits, his brow and throat both knotted with regret and anxiety. Not a few of the lesser peers in the audience let out with a harsh laugh at Tannhauser’s stricken conscience, much to the shame of Paris and themselves. Upon Tannhauser’s return to the world above, a singing contest is arranged throughout the kingdom, with the winner to be betrothed to the loyal Elizabeth, ably played by Mlle. Simpelle, whose soft white gown was a marvelous organization of fair fluffs and diaphanous falls. The other contestants, whose songs touch lightly and ably the themes of fidelity and truelove, remain chaste. Into this churchlike atmosphere, contrite, and with a deep spiritual love evident in his eyes and manner, Evan Tannglehott, who played Tannhauser, comes, his song starting with a single long and beautifully oscillated note, as if to literally draw his heart out of his mouth and present it to the listening Elizabeth.

And then, on an ambiguous turn in the leitmotif, where we begin to hear the echo of Venus’ throbbing theme, Tannhauser transforms from a chloroformed and arsenicpale choirboy of heavenly affectation into a blazing bacchante, and his song discovers that all that had the urge and ability to ascend in Tannhauser can descend with the demons at as rapid a pace, back to the undergroud frolics of voluptuous Venusberg. The struggle of the entire soul of man to believe in even a single ideal–it turns restlessly, hopelessly upon that singe note! Until even our idea of heaven is tinged with the demeaning determination of the despotic, and even our most clouded and closed nightmares of Hell display some tinge of Heaven.

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