Tannhäuser in the kingdom of the goddess Venus, by Henri Fantin-Latour. Photograph: akg-images
As Tannhäuser opens at the ROH, the Guardian had an interesting article:
Admired by Queen Victoria, Oscar Wilde and Freud, Tannhäuser contains one of the most extreme depictions of sex attempted in music.
Tim Ashley Saturday 11 December 2010
In chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's hero goes to the opera. As transgression and excess begin to rot that famous portrait, the piece to which he becomes obsessively drawn is Wagner'sTannhäuser, the only named musical work in a passage widely viewed as a catalogue of the trappings of decadence. Wilde describes the "rapt pleasure" Dorian takes in "seeing in the prelude to that great work of art a presentation of the tragedy of his own soul".
Dorian was by no means alone, for it was in Tannhäuser, more than any of Wagner's other operas, that many in the late 19th century found a reflection of their moral and sexual concerns. Its admirers included Queen Victoria, Baudelaire and Freud. It inspired major works both of literature and pornography, and was interpreted as everything from a justification of normative values to a fierce celebration of counterculture extremes. It appealed above all to those who were – or felt – outlawed by their sexuality.
The opera's starting point is the dichotomy between flesh and spirit, as refracted through a variation on the medieval legend of the troubadour Tannhäuser, who strayed into the Venusberg, or kingdom of the goddess Venus, whose lover he became. Sexual satiety provoked his return to the world of men, where shame impelled him to seek salvation by undertaking a self-mortifying journey to Rome to beg absolution from the Pope. The latter, however, rejected his request: damnation awaits those who have enjoyed the pleasures of Venus; Tannhäuser has no more chance of achieving salvation than the Pope's staff has of beginning to flower. Yet after the troubadour left, the Pope's staff did, indeed, miraculously, begin to flower. But too late for Tannhäuser's soul: he had returned to Venus with whom he will remain until he is damned on judgment day.
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For a different version at Bayreuth.
Tannhäuser is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 2 January. See you there perhaps on the 27th.
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