Wagner finally fits the bill for Looney Tunes crowd

By Jason Sherwin

Wagner, Excepts from “Tannhäuser”

Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Daniel Barenboim, conductor

Angela Denoke, soprano

Peter Seiffert, tenor

Roman Trekel, bass

Symphony Hall, October 17, 2002

On Thursday, October 17, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed excerpts from Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser.” Since this was an orchestral production, neither staging nor costumes were a part of the performance. But, is a performance without any use of dynamics acceptable? Or would a piece performed with all the wrong notes be lauded for intensity of expression? I think not, and I am sure anyone with a decent ear for music would also agree. Therefore how can such a Wagner-lover as Daniel Barenboim allow, nay conduct, a performance of Wagner outside of an opera house? According to Wagner’s writings on the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (or complete work of art covering the realms of theatre, art, poetry and music), it is just as much of a crime to omit the clarinet in the opening of the overture as it is to omit the staging and costumes from an entire opera. Wagner elaborates this idea more thoroughly in The Artwork of the Future, with which I am sure Barenboim is quite familiar. But the fault is not solely upon Barenboim’s shoulders, since just last summer I recall attending a concert of excerpts from “Tristan und Isolde” at the Ravinia Festival.

Perhaps Wagner himself lends a clue in his extensive writings about how kosher it is to perform just the music of his operas. In fact, Wagner himself was summoned about 6 years after the completion of “Tannhäuser” to write as a music critic for a music journal. In his response, Wagner stipulates his idea of an ideal music journal that champions the following idea: “Now our Music, in her noblest line, has already taken a development which must necessarily lead her to the sterlingest of meanings, through marriage with the art of poetry.” In this essay, Wagner further claims that the combination of poetry and music is the actual form of Music. Though he writes here that the union of poetry and music makes for the ultimate form of expression, Wagner writes in The Artwork of the Future that complete artwork incorporates theatre, drama, music, and poetry. So a discrepancy emerges in the medium of expression between meaningful music and a complete work of art.

Perhaps the overture is the only musical excerpt from this opera that can be performed outside of the opera house. Even Wagner himself conducted performances of the overture throughout Europe, so he must have thought it valid to preview his Gesamtkunstwerk within the bounds of the concert hall. But at least on one occasion, he also wrote a brief spiel on the musical representations embodied in the overture: “As night breaks, magic sights and sounds appear: a rosy mist floats up, exultant shouts assail our ear; the whirlings of a fearsomely voluptuous dance are seen.” Maybe the CSO gave us bad seats, but I missed the magic sights, rosy mists and the voluptuous dance. I did see, however, bombastically dance-like gyrations from Barenboim during particular moments of the overture, but by no stretch of the imagination were they voluptuous. While this all seems quite comical, the fact is quite the contrary. Not one member of the audience was provided with these program notes written by the composer himself that explain in essence the foundations of the entire opera. So, there was one more aspect of the work that was missing: the writing behind it all. But who can expect a dilettante audience member to read Wagner’s writings before he comes to the Symphony? There is a distinct line between lasting fanaticism and transient intrigue that separates the audience at Symphony Center. Since the majority of it falls into the latter category (and there is nothing wrong with that), the complete meaning of Wagner’s works in most instances goes unnoticed. However, with the fast-moving lifestyle of modern urban life, no composer can expect such preparation and hermeneutic immersion on the part of the audience. Though he lashed out ferociously at the tune-loving audiences of France and Italy, Wagner could also not expect such preparation by an audience during his time. But the miracle of Wagner, as with most brilliant composers, is that he finds a way to lure even the least knowledgeable audience member into the hall, though that person’s knowledge of Wagner may be limited to “Kill the Wabbit” as sung by Elmer Fudd. Whether Wagner knew this result deep down will remain a mystery, but the fact that he published so much prose about his music adds another dimension to his work that is interesting.

So, is it a crime to omit the staging and costumes? It is just as much a crime as not locking every audience member in a room before the concert with the words written by Wagner about “Tannhäuser”. The music stands alone, with or without costumes and staging, and this is perhaps one of the reasons that the champion of Brahms and absolute music (i.e. direct ideological opposite to Wagner), namely Eduard Hanslick, called “Tannhäuser” the finest thing achieved in grand opera in recent years. Keeping in mind that such a statement from the pen of Hanslick is on par with an excerpt from Wagner’s writings about why he loves Jews, we must listen to this lifetime adversary at least in criticism of Wagner and his music. As for the actual performance, Barenboim, the CSO and the soloists made sure that the music stood alone triumphantly. The overture was a little slower than I was accustomed to hearing it, but the pace was more majestic than lugubrious for the brilliant orchestration of the Pilgrims Chorus at the end of the overture. The duet between “Tannhäuser” and Venus was executed with drive of emotion that seemed to emanate from soprano Angela Denoke and her powerful yet delicate voice. Her voice conveyed not only the alluring lust embodied in the character of Venus but also the controlling force of the goddess of love. It was her godly yet feminine voice that demonstrated Wagner’s music can stand alone outside the opera house. But only the dynamic combination of the CSO, its chorus, Denoke, Peter Seifert (tenor) and Roman Trekel (bass) could bring to reality the ideal form of expression envisioned by Wagner himself in his writings. Therefore Barenboim et al did the research that most audiences would not and definitely did not do, making such a performance as last Thursday night’s enjoyable for the Looney Tunes aficionados as well as for the Wagner tunes aficionados.