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Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Typical Saturday night


Key: Sacred Love's clothed, Profane Love's ready for action
On Saturday for the first time we saw Wagner's opera Tannhäuser streamed from the New York Met. It's about sacred and profane love (pictured above).

Tannhäuser dallies with Venus (voluptuous, thus profane love) and, for no good reason, chooses to return home. In a singing competition T boasts about the rumpy-pumpy he's been enjoying, shocking the community and his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth (devout, therefore sacred love) who sort of forgives him. To redeem himself T pilgrims to Rome to be absolved by the Pope. Returning home T meets Wolfram, a mate before he became a metal (aka tungsten), and says he mentioned his penances to the Pope, adding he still has profane yearnings. Politely the Pope tells T to defecate in his hat. Elisabeth sort of dies and by dying absolves T. T then dies and the opera ends with a stunning chorus of:

The grace of God is granted to the penitent;
now he enters into the bliss of heaven.


It's far better than the plot suggests, much of the music is quite, quite beautiful, and there's genuine drama. But what about its premise?

Profane love we know about, teenagers get up to it too early in life. Sacred love, it seems, only happens above the waistline and was the going thing in Tannhäuser’s home town near Wartburg Castle, Germany. Amazingly the town didn't depopulate and die in the Middle Ages, but this may happen shortly, given its most important industry is car-making. That's German car-making.

Still about cars and even more amazing, Wartburg Castle gave its name to a terrible two-stroke car made in what used to be East Germany. Not a car to generate any love – sacred or profane – in me. Stay with Tone Deaf, it’s educational but in a populist way.

3 comments:

Ellena said...

Oh yes, the opera where a woman needs to die to bring about a man's salvation.

Blonde Two said...

Am intrigued by 'sort of' dying. Is it less painful maybe or are their less lights and a much shorter tunnel?
You do make me want to go to the opera, I was brought up on Gilbert and Sullivan whom I presume are completely different animals!

Roderick Robinson said...

Ellena: There are other operas involving sacrificial sopranos. Not that Elizabeth's "sort of" death does Tannhäuser much good; he "sort of" dies very soon after. Music's terrific though.

Blonde Two: I invented the term for this opera though it's appropriate to others. To "sort of" die is to flip to the other binary state (ie, from "on" to "off") without the assistance of any apparent external or internal, human or superhuman, bacterial or gravitational agency. It is entirely painless and utterly unconvincing.

Long before I took up opera seriously I always knew there was a form of music I was never going to get on with: variously "light opera" or (even more abusive in my view) "operetta", to which category G&S belong.

I think there are two reasons: (a) I have never thought that classical music (a term I understand but loathe, preferring "posh music") is a suitable vehicle for comic themes, (b) the reverse side: superficially opera is such an artificial art form that I need it to be underpinned by something serious that I can recognise; to me G&S aren't serious.

Getting into opera can be tricky: the Damascene moment usually occurs when the emotions of the plot somehow, magically, fuse with the aptness of the music. However there are no short-cuts, you need the musical preamble first; simply listening to a sublime aria on its own (the "bleeding chunks" approach) doesn't take you there. To make a stab at it you need a great opera, an honest open mind, and (ideally) the company of someone congenial, similarly equipped. Here's my list of the greatest operas, allowing only one per composer:

Figaro (Mozart)
Boheme (Puccini)
Rosenkavalier (R. Strauss)
Walküre (Wagner)
Turn of the Screw (Britten)
Rake's Progress (Stravinsky)
Lulu (Berg)
Theodora (Handel)
Porgy (Gershwin)
Dido (Purcell)

However, a good way of starting off would be to pick one, typically Figaro, and see that three times before moving on.