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Retro-Tannhäuser: Wagner in Ecstasy

Opera has always been about the dressing up as much as about the singing. For more than a century after the its birth around 1600, Venice was the genre’s capital. During Carnival, which ran from after Christmas until the midnight before Fat Tuesday, the island republic’s theaters and palaces were overrun by debauchery-seeking Grand Tourists from Northern Europa mingling in every possible way with local libertines. It was a time of masks and get-ups. The sumptuous outfits and assumed roles on stage were simply an extension of the costumed fêtes, hidden-faced assignations, and gender-bending identity games entertaining and arousing the entire city.

It’s important to keep this in mind when making your way through the Metropolitan Opera simulcast season at your local mall. If the famed Venetian opera house of La Fenice (the Phoenix) can live up to its own name by rising not once but twice from the ashes of devastating fires, then so can your own spirit lift itself above the rows of SUVS massed on the asphalt in front of the multiplex. You imagine that structure to be the doge’s palace and the cars to be lacquered black gondolas bobbing at their moorings on the Grand Canal, your Lands’ End fleece a sumptuous ermine-lined silk cape, an ironic smirk your mask.

Such fantasies were a touch easier to kindle two weeks ago on Halloween for an opera matinee. Even if neither the aged public in the raked seating of Theater 11 at Regal Cinemas in Ithaca, New York paying $24 each nor the staid bunch on screen filling the Met down in Manhattan for as much of $400-plus a head were wearing costumes, the chorus and solo cast certainly were in fully fancy-dress on the Lincoln Center stage. On these Manhattan boards it was a veritable trick-or-treat bonanza: medieval Germany by way of 1840s Saxony through the louche 1970s to our very own pre-apocalypse All Hallow’s Eve of 2015.

On America’s dress-up day it was Richard Wagner’s 1845 Dresden opera Tannhäuser, a work set in medieval Germany in a production first seen at the Met way back in 1978 as staged by venerable Austrian director Otto Schenk.

The Met’s Wagnerian spectacle is hoary stuff in every way—double, if not triply dated. That this luxurious beast of a staging was pulled out again after a decade in the deep freeze is a testament to the conservative tastes of many of the super-rich opera lovers on the company’s board. Just as Tannhäuser is undone in the second act singing contest on the Wartburg, the board is apparently engaging in its own less melodious bout with the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb, whose more adventurous approach displeases at least some of those with money in the opera game. The friction between Gelb and some of the big donors was reported in a profile of him by James B. Stewart that appeared in the New Yorker in March of this year and the results of this tension can be seen in the simulcast schedule: take for example the geriatric Tannhäuser screened two weeks ago, to be followed tomorrow (November 14th) by what promises to be a provocative and fresh version of Alban Berg’s expressionist masterpiece Lulu crafted by the celebrated South African artist and director William Kentridge.

Lulu sings of having taken a bath in the first act of Berg’s opera; Gelb and the Met took their own twenty-million-dollar bath with the widely lambasted cycle of Wagner’s Ring cycle begun in 2010 and completed in 2013, its elaborate and unreliable onstage machinery making it the most expensive production in the history of the Met.

Given the boardroom backdrop, it is always really nervy when the host—this last week it was American soprano Susan Graham, who is herself in the cast of Lulu—turns to the simulcast camera and asks for donations from the multiplex audience. Listen, Susan, we know where the real cashola resides and we’ve done our parts by simply putting our butts in the seats for more than twice the price of ticket to see the other costumed actors do their thing in the mall, such as Michael Fassbender as Jobs berating his Apple courtiers in the adjacent theater or Matt Damon stumbling around the red planet on the screen across the hall.

In spite, or more likely because, of its unabashedly opera-of-yore look and feel, this retro Tannhäuser elicits much affection from viewers, as proven by the inter-act conservations out in the carpeted corridors of the multi-plex. Given the outdated opulence of the thing, it’s no coincidence that in the second intermission Graham took the cinema audiences back to the Met’s wardrobe to feel and fetishize the lush robes and gowns not being used for the final act. As Laurence Dreyfus demonstrates in his 2013 book, Wagner and the Erotic Impulse, the composer himself was a fanatic for fabric, especially silk, and even more especially in pink. Dreyfus quotes at length from an 1864 letter of Wagner to his Viennese milliner:

“Can you obtain from Szontag a fine heavy satin, light brown in color, to match the enclosed sample? The same in dark pink? Is there a good quality fabric obtainable at 4 to 5 florins to match the enclosed light pink? — ditto— the blue, but preferably somewhat lighter, certainly not darker. Has Szontag enough of the new red or crimson-colored heavy satin in stock that you used to line my white dressing-gown (with the floral pattern)? Do you still have any of the dark yellow which we used to make the curtains for the little tables? … I hope you still have the patterns of my house-clothes? … P. S. do not confuse No. 2 , the dark pink, with the earlier violet pink, which is not what I mean here, but genuine pink, only very dark and fiery.”

Dreyfus adds that, “The composer’s very own personal shade of pink was ‘very pale and delicate.’” Dreyfus goes on to show that Wagner ordered fancy women’s dresses and undergarments and loved to wear them, working himself into a lather when composing with the feel of satin against his skin and the scent of rose perfume in the air. Every day was a kind of Halloween for Wagner, and it’s only fair that the simulcast audience should get to indulge its own fabric lust vicariously, even if only by ogling rather than actually feel the stuff up.

Not surprisingly Wagner himself claimed to have composed Tannhäuser in a “state of all-consuming and lascivious arousal.” Within the minstrel-knight title character rages a mortal contest between unfettered eroticism and chaste devotion, his lusts and loves bouncing between the voluptuous Venus and the pure Elisabeth. One can clearly see and hear Tannhäuser as a projection of the interior battles of the costume-loving Wagner himself, although Dreyfus claims that the composer’s intention was not to oppose the erotic and religious in the opera, but to fold the one rapturously into the other.

I’m uncertain if Wagner would have been turned on by the Met’s Tannhäuser in the person of South African tenor Johan Botha, an impressive singer of substantial girth and wobbling jowls.

Back in 2008, after the soon-to-be head of Vienna State Opera, Dominique Meyer criticized the singer’s weight and mobility, Botha responded that: “I hardly know any thin Wagnerian tenors. A singer must eat and drink after long, stressful singing. I will not apologize. But I try not to gain more weight. Botha cannot move, that is nonsense!” At the Met simulcast, Botha informed Graham after the first act that he had gotten up at 5:30 that morning and hadn’t eaten anything all day. Here’s guessing that the look in his dying eyes at the end of act 3 was neither yearning for the departed Elisabeth nor for Venus’s ample bosom, but for a side of Wildebeest with all the fixings washed down with several tankards of ale.

In the end, the dying Tannhäuser chooses heavenly love over Venus’s embrace. From the devout horn hymn that opens the overture to the exhausted hero’s final breath the music rings out as an exercise in sublimation through art. It all goes to show that, from the scented parlor of the composer to the popcorn dusted air of the multiplex masquerade, you can get away with almost anything if you’ve got the right costume on.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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