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From Bayreuth to New York: Tannhäuser

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

I purchased a ticket to watch the Bayreuth (Germany) production of Tannhäuser, but the streaming link never arrived. Glen and I were all dressed up with nothing to watch, so we traveled virtually to New York to see the Metropolitan Opera on-demand production of Tannhäuser. It was filmed in 2015 as part of the Met’s Live in HD movie theater season.

For the evening’s performance, Glen sported a black shirt and pants, accented by a white tie. I wore a mermaid-style, full length dress of blue lace. Unfortunately, a selfie only gets so much in the frame, so you aren’t able to see the flare of the dress. Perhaps I’ll set up a tripod for the next time.

About the Opera: Synopsis

Johan Botha plays a minnesinger (Tannhäuser) caught between lustful temptations and true love. After partying for an unknown amount of time in Venusburg, Tannhäuser leaves Venus to repent for his sins. He resumes his old life as a sincerely penitent man but temptation eventually wins. After the kind and virtuous Elisabeth (Eva-Maria Westbroek) saves Tannhäuser from being lynched during a sing-off, he makes a pilgrimage to get a pardon from the Pope. The Pope won’t pardon him. To make a point, the Pope says the Papal staff would have to sprout green leaves before he’d ever pardon the one who spent so much time with Venus. Crestfallen, Tannhäuser drags himself back to Elisabeth, who has just given up her life to redeem him. As the devastated Tannhäuser sobs on the ground, someone runs in to exclaim that the Papal staff sprouted leaves, so Tannhäuser’s soul is saved.

Seems pretty straightforward, but it takes Wagner 3 hours and 51 minutes to tell the tale. To fuel us through the opera, we had a tomato-broccoli sprouts-onion salad during Act 1, cold cucumber-yogurt soup for Act 2, and leftover blueberry clafoutis to wind up Act 3.

The Production

The Met is one of the best, if not the best, opera organizations in the world, and so are its productions. The singing was stellar, especially by Johan Botha, Eva-Maria Westbroek, and Peter Mattei (Wolfram). The Met’s large professional chorus had many opportunities to shine in this production as there is lots of choral singing. The Met ballet dancers were spectacular in the opening scenes, as they depicted the wild partying that goes on in Venusburg. Great production! You too can see it through Met On-Demand. (Unfortunately Mr. Botha died the year after this production, at the age of 51.)

As much as I wanted to see the Bayreuth production, the Met provides subtitles, which I appreciated greatly. In Bayreuth, everyone is expected to either know German or to have the opera memorized, so the Bayreuth streams do not have subtitles.

Singing Songs, Not Swinging Swords

Having recently watched Die Meistersinger, it struck me that both Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger feature men who sing instead of fight. Die Meistersinger (the master singer) is all about men besting each other with song. In Tannhäuser’s big conflict scene, Wolfram sings about idealized, pure, true love and how he languishes (the song does go on) and Tannhäuser jumps up and in song, calls him on it.

“Wolfram, you have falsely portrayed love! If you truly languished like that, the world would come to an end.”

Then Tannhäuser goes on to a lustful description of love which causes a few other men to jump up and sing back. There is a lot of angry back-and-forth singing. Eventually the men threaten to draw swords on Tannhäuser, but Elisabeth stops them. I’d love to see these sing-offs today. A rap contest is probably the closest thing we have to what Wagner portrayed in opera.

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