Sunday, September 30, 2007

Second Thoughts about Tannhäuser

I once heard a great story about John Maynard Keynes. He supposedly gave a lecture, after which some pedantic type came up and challenged him for being inconsistent with several assertions from his published literature. (Today we would say that he was being accused of flip-flopping.) Keynes responded, "When I receive evidence that is inconsistent with a position I have taken, I change my position; what do you do with inconsistent evidence?" By virtue of recent correspondence with a friend who shares the Opera box where my wife and I sit for a "mini-series" (while we attend the entire subscription series), I have stumbled across some evidence that is not very consistent with the reading I was proposing for the Tannhäuser text.

The reading in question concerns the opposition of Venusberg-as-life against the Wartburg-as-death (triggered by the dead animals, which are pretty much the first thing we see when Tannhäuser returns to the Wartburg from Venusberg). Our box-mate observed that she "was distracted by Venus' farmer tan;" and this got me to thinking about the necessity of both light and water for life and how they were handled in this interpretation of the scenario. Let me consider each a bit in turn.

Let's start with light. As I pointed out, there is this tree that runs through all three acts of the opera, almost like, as one of my friends used to put it, the skewer through the shish kebab. In Venusberg "the tree is rich with green foliage;" but how did it get that way? There is very little sense that Venusberg is a place of light or darkness. It is a place of orgies where we have enough light to see what is happening, but is it a place of day and night? In the scenario as it has been set, light only begins to matter when Elizabeth opens up all of the windows to the Minstrel's Hall. Venus can summon a ring of fire; but light and dark do not appear to signify, perhaps because time does not need to be divided into intervals if life is eternal.

A green tree also needs water, but that does not appear to be in Venusberg either. We only see water with the arrival of the staggering pilgrims, one of whom heads straight for a little stream at the edge of the stage. This could be taken as a minor detail; but, where questions of life and death are concerned, the classical elements are a bit more than minor details!

Thus, it may be that Venusberg really is not all about life. It is just about sex and probably sex without procreation. Thus, it is just as sterile as Elizabeth's piety! Now this is not entirely inconsistent with my original conception: If Venusberg is a place of eternal life for those who dwell there, than procreative sex is not necessary. (Take that, James Thurber!) Nevertheless, in the face of all that effort to unify the three acts of the opera with that tree, it feels as if a whole bunch of other contextual details have fallen by the wayside. In other words, to fall back on my previous attempts to view performances through the lenses of the medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, we have some serious problems of logic in this production, not the logic of Aristotle, of course, but just some basis for a rationale behind what we see and hear. I guess my exercise in sense-making for this production still has some work left to do!

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