Given my slightly disparaging attitude towards Wagner's words, it would be more than a little unfair to write about Tannhäuser and ignore the music. On the other hand so much has been written about Wagner's music that it is hard to imagine adding anything new to the current store of knowledge. On the other hand I can take a more egoistic stance and write about something I heard pretty much for the first time in yesterday's San Francisco Opera performance, and it has to do with this history of the score. As we can learn from a variety of sources (including the Chronicle), it received its first performance in Dresden on October 19, 1845 but was then revised for its first performance in Paris on March 13, 1861. Two things are important about this, both of which were observed by Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman. The more familiar is that, because Parisians insisted on ballet with their opera, Wagner extended the opening Venusberg music by about ten minutes to allow for such a ballet. The second is the Paris date, which means that the new music was written about Tristan und Isolde, which many would regard as a watershed in Wagner's intellectual development.
The implication of this second point is that the four-note chromatic ascents that penetrate the ballet music at its most passionate are most likely deliberate evocations of the same chromaticism in Tristan, particularly in light of the shared carnal context. (Wagner would reflect back on Tristan with a bit more sobriety in Hans Sachs' encounter with Eva in the first scene of the final act of Meistersinger; but here, of course, the Tristan legend is invoked in the text.) What is more interesting, however, is that this is not the only suggestion of cross-reference in the Tannhäuser score. There is at least one brief motif supporting Elizabeth that would later transfer over to Elsa in the second act procession of Lohengrin; and many of the explicitly Christian references presage the fundamental motifs of Parsifal. Thus, if we are to consider this in terms of that duality of Venusberg and the Wartburg, Venusberg "celebrates" the passions of Tristan and Isolde, while Wartburg is part of a "Christian thread" that would subsequently present itself through first Lohengrin and then Parsifal.
As to the first point, I agree with Kosman in two ways. First of all, the new ballet music is pretty damned awesome, all the more so for being informed by Wagner's "linguistic discoveries" in Tristan. Secondly, Ron Howell's choreography for this music did it no justice at all. (I might even suggest that Kosman's negative reaction to the subsequent staging is a result of being put off by that choreography.) Things were probably not any better in 1861 Paris, but the history of ballet has had some very significant ups and downs since then. Furthermore, over that period of time, any music by Wagner has never progressed beyond footnote status; and, in terms of the "Holy Trinity" of modern ballet, neither the "Father" (Michel Fokine), nor the "Son" (George Balanchine), nor even the "Holy Ghost" (Frederick Ashton) ever had anything to do with Wagner. The Venusberg music, along with the overture, was used by Leonide Massine for his ballet "Bacchanale" in 1939; but, in spite of some of the really delightful things that Massine both choreographed and performed ("Gaîté Parisienne" being the most memorable for me), the man had a bad habit of biting off more than he could chew (Beethoven's seventh symphony with its creation of the world in Greek tunics, for crying out loud). So I shall risk being accused of arrogance, and assert that ballet and Wagner just do not mix. They certainly did not mix in Howell's no-such-thing-as-too-much-excess conception. Having recently seen the documentary Absolute Wilson, I found myself longing for the intensity of Robert Wilson's sense of prolonged stasis. The music does so much frantic jumping around that any further depiction of erotic emotion would probably be better conveyed through a frozen tableau!