After spending most of the day on campus for the first Applicant Visit Day of 2106 at the University of Sussex I went home feeling a bit exhausted, but my spirits were soon lifted when I switched on BBC Radio 3 to find a broadcast just startiong of Tannhäuser (or Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg to give it it’s full title). It wasn’t quite the usual Saturday Night Live from the Met because the performance was actually recorded on October 31st 2015 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, so I won’t quibble about that. Composed in 1845, Tannhäuser is a relatively early work by Richard Wagner which he called a “Romantic opera in three acts” indicating that it has the structure of a conventional opera; later on in his career he was to abandon that format in favour of the Music Drama (which is not built on a succession of arias and recitatives) as Tannhäuser is.
I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, but Tannhäuser is basically about typical Wagnerian themes: the conflict between spiritual and earthly love, between life and death, and the hope of redemption. The eponymous hero, a minstrel knight, takes a walk on the wild side in Act I by visiting Venusberg, in the course of which he is unfaithful to his beloved Elizabeth. He turns up in Act II at Wartburg where there i a sort of mediaeval Eurovision Song contest. First singer up is the naive but honorable Wolfram who sings a beautiful song about courtly love, but Tannhäuser finds it all a bit tame and sings a much raunchier number, which reveals that he’s been a naughty boy. There is uproar, swords are drawn and it all gets a bit fraught. Eventually Tannhäuser is persuaded to atone for his transgressions by undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome. Unfortunately for him the Pope isn’t in an absolving mood and tells him he’s going to suffer eternal damnation. In Act III, Tannhäuser, clearly unhinged, talks about returning to Venusberg – if he’s damned anyway he might as well go out with a bang – but then he discovers his beloved Elizabeth is dead and, overcome by grief and remorse, he dies too.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an ambivalent attitude to Wagner, but last night I was hooked from the moment I switched the radio on and listened right through to the end, which came four hours later. I have heard Tannhäuser before and knew the familiar show-stoppers (especially the famous Pilgrim’s Chorus, which is as uplifting a piece of music as you will hear anywhere). What was so very special last night, however, was the quality of the singing, which was truly wonderful all the way through the principals and chorus. The broadcast is available on iPlayer for the next month. If you have never had a taste of Wagner, give it a go. This opera is full of great tunes but they were sung better in this performance than in any other I have heard. As a little taster, here is Wolfram (sung by baritone Peter Mattei) from the same production we heard last night, singing his Act III aria O du mein holder Abendstern (O thou my fair evening star).