The opening of a new Danish production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser would not be the occasion for extended theoretical comment were it not for a world-wide Wagner revival, in which the sheer number of new stagings of Wagnerian music dramas has overtaken, we are told, the revivals of virtually all now classic 20th-century (or ‘modern’) operas. Perhaps the career of its director, Kasper Bech Holten, director of the Royal Danish Opera at the age of 27 and soon to join the new cultural globalization of internationally mobile conductors, virtuosi, multi-lingual actors and soccer players, can add an additional perspective to what looks like the development of a new historical phenomenon, which neither Wagner’s genius nor Holten’s talent are sufficient to explain.
Tannhäuser may indeed seem to offer a merely peripheral occasion for examining such developments, since it was something of a transitional work in Wagner’s own career, and one whose libretto was flawed in ways that tormented Wagner throughout his life. Indeed, a week or so before his death he told Cosima, I owe the world a Tannhäuser; this, after in the bitter disappointment of the first Bayreuth Ring he had decided to abandon opera for purely orchestral compositions. But Tannhäuser (first performed in Dresden before the revolution, but still a ‘romantic opera’ and not a ‘music drama’) remained unfinished business: an amalgam of two mediaeval sources which was too big for its rather conventional and rigid theatrical form (choruses, theatrical set pieces, lack of stage machinery, summarily reported off-stage action), the space for traditional arias not yet effaced by the theory and practice of the leitmotif, yet not really serving any longer for full-blown Bellini-style virtuosity.
There are some foreshadowings: the singing contest between the Minnesänger will be fully realized, for example, only in its more bourgeois form by Die Meistersinger: and Tannhäuser’s prize-winning song will never quite take on the centrality of Walther’s, even though it exemplifies the auto-referentiality, the music about music, which is always implicit in opera and lurking beneath the surface of the form.
The great song duel of the Minnesänger on the Wartburg—a seemingly legendary event supposed to have taken place around 1207—is attributed to real historical figures (with the exceptions of Tannhäuser himself), and was fictionalized by E. T. A. Hoffman well before Wagner. The other mediaeval legend combined with this one in the opera has to do with humans enticed into magical or diabolical realms from which they are then unable to escape: in this case the realm of Venus, who has been absorbed into Christian culture along with the other pagan deities and transformed into a demonic agency (as documented by Jean Seznec in a classic work). The Venusberg—mons veneris!—into which poor Tannhäuser has been tempted and which henceforth holds him in thrall, is just such a pagan space, which inspires horror in the Christian subjects of the above-ground daylight world, very much including the court of Eisenach. This is clearly a first and virtually overt dramatization of what is today clinically (and comically) termed sex addiction: and of course it also slips effortlessly into the conventional Romantic motif of the two lovers—dark and fair, but more significantly physical and spiritual, whore and mother, prostitute and wife-and-family. For Tannhäuser knows a pure and spiritual love for Elisabeth, the sister of the Elector Heinrich and the patroness of the song duels, as it were the judge and poetic emblem of Minne—courtly love—itself. In Wagner this purer face of love (which has its carnal one in Lady Venus) is endowed (as is the latter) with its own characteristic music, and yet that music is also identified with the pilgrims and the Christian religion in general in such a way that we confront three positions rather than two, and everything is thereby irredeemably confused and confounded.
This was surely one of the flaws that bedeviled Wagner in hindsight: for it is not at all clear why the spiritual purity associated with Elisabeth, and with courtly love generally, should be identified with the church and with religion as such. The sex drive, and whatever relief (chastity, sublimation) or release from it, are libidinal affects which do not particularly require the Western theological ideology of sin and redemption for their justification. When the drama of erotic temptation is repeated in the much-later Parsifal—where Wagner in his old age takes a decided position for chastity—the religious solemnity need not be read as Christian at all, and many believers have refused to acknowledge the work as theologically orthodox. Wagner certainly meant it to have a ritualistic and cultic flavour: it was not supposed to be performed anywhere but in its temple, Bayreuth; and yet—and despite his professed anti-Semitism—he was perfectly content to have it premiered by a Jewish conductor.