Thursday, December 3, 2015

Wagner's Protestant Sing-Off

Wagner’s Tannhäuser
Metropolitan Opera
October 24, 2015

An Orphic rival at the epic song contest.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The way hip hop and pop singers run their vocals through the Auto-Tune audio processor to sound like vaguely robotic dance machines, there are many baritone roles that I would like to run through the Peter Mattei processor to sound like the Orphic divine incarnate. He is just so smooth. In fact, in tonight's stellar performance of Wagner's Tannhäuser, Mattei's singing was so swooningly delightful that it was hard to believe his character when in Act I he says that none of his songs have managed to move the princess Elizabeth since the accomplished songsmith Tannhäuser had left the picture. How could that be? Mattei is simply irresistible every time he opens his mouth. Even just intoning, "Where have you been?" to his friend Tannhäuser, Mattei makes you melt on the inside. His sound is so round and suave. He holds every syllable in his mouth and pushes it out through the skein of seductive expression. There's really just nothing like it. Peter Mattei is the reincarnation of Orpheus for our time. And there are so many roles that I would love to hear sung the way he sings. I could listen to him always and forever. Mattei’s embodiment of Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star in Act III, O Du, mein holder Abenstern, was one of the most transcendent things I've heard at the Met, certainly so far this season.

Tannhäuser searches his soul.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Jonas Botha is always a competent Wagnerian tenor. He has the stamina to withstand for the entire roughly four-hour duration and the power to project out over the massive orchestration with clarity. But he has little feeling and does little for me. Not like Peter Mattei. I also feel like he lacks something of the unbridled Dionysian that should exude especially from the early arias he performs at the bequest of Venus in Act I, Scene I, Dir Töne Lob! Die Wunder Sei’n Gepriesen! There he is, the star poet who has become the closest bosom buddy of the goddess of love herself. You would think that he would sound the part: manly and guttural, virile yet chthonic. Oozing testosterone out of his every note in the most raw and powerful way, the way he can sound in some of the best recordings. Botha is always just a little too contained and a little too strident to fully embody this important element of the Wagnerian cosmos. Jonas’ stage presence, too, is pretty flat to say the least. Granted, all he needs to do most of the time is strum his harp, yet he managed to make even that simple gesture look unnatural and borderline ridiculous (particularly when compared to the elegant and savvy stage presence of Peter Mattei).

The denizens of the local Venus Massage Parlor.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
But what is this Wagnerian world all about? I'm never sure how to take him. This is admittedly only our second Wagnerian operatic encounter. Despite being slightly underwhelmed a second time, I am still open to exposing myself to more. As in Die Meistersinger, the music in Tannhäuser is consistently extremely beautiful. But why does it so often seem like Wagner wastes his time on idiotic plots that only plod along? I guess that's what makes me curious to see how he treats some of the classic Teutonic mythological material that he was less responsible for coming up with. Maybe there he manages to plunge to even deeper more complex depths, especially structurally.

Wolfram works the crowd.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
In any case, it is clear by now that he loves song competitions. One of the modern feeling moments is the “rap battle” in court that features most prominently in Act II (but only after an interminably long processional in which every one and his mother slowly make their way out onto the stage). The song contest that climaxes in the denunciation of poor Tannhäuser for his frequenting the Venus Massage Parlor is really one of the only scenes in the whole opera with any action at all. And what offensive action it is. All of court society publicly lambasts him. And so, is it just me or does the story hinge on bigotry? For his lecherous lifestyle he is banished from court though his ladylove defends him and he is urged to make haste to Rome to repent of his sins. Good Lord! The horror! Frankly, how can anyone relate to this? No matter how good the music, when the plot is so flat and uninteresting I struggle to really enjoy an opera.

Wartburg Castle in all its splendor.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Nevertheless, I get the symbolism of this uniquely Protestant opera. It's not like the point of the allegory is hard to grasp. It's there for the grasping, right on the surface. In fact, there isn't much else to get. It's not like it's terribly multifaceted as a work of art. In terms of the chronology of the setting of the opera in historical time, it takes place in Wartburg Castle, which is where Martin Luther will later live, as well as where he will later translate the New Testament from Greek into German. It is a place of great symbolic import. In fact, Tannhäuser will go off to Rome only to encounter a Pope who has little more than eternal damnation to offer him. Which is very disconcerting for the poor promiscuous poet.

Tannhäuser digests eternal damnation.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
As it turns out, this is a Protestant world, avant la lettre, and so it's not over until it's over. The Catholic Church of course is nothing more than a mere human institution by this account. The Pope has no direct access to the word of God. He can eternally damn whomever he wants, as much and as often as his heart desires, but it’s not binding. Individual prayer can save. God always gets the final word on salvation and damnation. And what's more, in a finale that echoes that of Goethe’s Faust, it is apparently the love of an ordinary mortal woman that saves the profligate troubadour in God’s eyes. The love of a pure-hearted woman is a better route to salvation than confession to the Pope himself. In addition to its Pagan-Christian dichotomy, it also seems to operate between the poles of the Protestant-Catholic divide. Again, that’s not opera material to me by any stretch of the imagination.

Pilgrims approach, with token body strewn upon the ground.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
This classic Met production was moderately effective, especially in the Venusberg and subsequent forest scenes. I found the trompe-l'œil sets and lighting effects very captivating. They really created compelling space on the familiar Met stage. At the end of Act III, when Tannhäuser is momentarily tempted to go back to his old debauched ways, the eerie optical illusion of the sudden appearance of Venus on her throne again in the deepest reaches of the stage at the same height of the evening star was a striking bit of stagecraft. Other than that, though, the blocking was pretty poor, with singers inexplicably throwing themselves face down on the ground in every other scene. Very strange!

Wagner, I'm still hopeful that you're going to win me over one of these days. So far, we’re 0 for 2.

Lui & Lei

Tannhäuser prostrate before the corpse of his beloved savior.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The object of desire.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

No comments:

Post a Comment