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What's Opera, Doc? Part 3.

By Angelo Barthélemy

Poster for the opening of Tannhäuser in Paris.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Not a Comedy

On March 13th, 1861, the opera Tannhäuser opened to great fanfare in Paris, the premiere location for opera. It had been promoted by the wife of the Austrian ambassador, Pauline von Metternich, one of Richard Wagner’s most influential admirers, as a way to bring about some harmony between French and German peoples, something much needed after the recent wars between the French and Austrian empires, to say nothing of the century to come. The Emperor Napoléon III and his wife Eugénie de Montijo were in attendance, along with most of the Parisian upper classes and a not inconsiderable number of German worthies. The musical weeklies had kept up a regular stream of information to their readers about the drama surrounding the whole production. The overture was met with shouts of approval, “bravos”, and loud clapping.

And then things took a turn.

By the end of the first act, there were laughs rocking the audience, a bad thing as that opera is not a comedy in the least. Jeers aplenty and a particular subset had started using whistles to cover the singing. The singers and the orchestra nonetheless kept on as well as they could in the increasing cacophony (the most malicious of critics said all the agitation was more harmonious than the music itself) until curtain, still earning some plaudits in the second act for the March, a purely instrumental part.

The second performance went worse, despite the imperial couple still showing their support by turning up again. Wagner had already agreed to significant cuts, the usual cure suggested for troubled performances, some of which nearly eliminated supporting roles like Venus’s, but it was no use. The whistlers were out in force and made it near impossible to hear the score. The third, scheduled on a Sunday in an attempt to get a different sort of audience, fared no better. By that point, Wagner had to concede his foray on the Parisian stage was deader than an opera character after their death aria, asked the Opéra director to withdraw his work and slinked back to Switzerland deeply depressed. It would be twelve years before Tannhäuser was produced on another stage, despite having enjoyed a lot of success in the original Dresden creation, and thirty-four years before another attempt was made in Paris, by which time Wagner had passed away.

In a vengeful letter to his German supporters, Wagner explained what had happened: the whistlers were members of the very exclusive Jockey Club. Constant idlers and proud of their uselessness, their days were spent courting their mistresses, mostly young dancers belonging to the Opéra’s corps du ballet. They would arrive late to the performance, not being people to cut short their supper by even a single course. Here was why Tannhäuser met such a dire fate: the Opéra direction had begged Wagner to include a ballet so that the members of the club could find satisfaction in seeing their paramours on stage. Wagner had steadfastly refused, then finally relented... but the ballet happened early in the first act. Any person coming in late would miss it. Hence their furore and charivari which sank the opera.

Police at the opera; whatever next?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Or at least, so goes Wagner’s account and certainly nobody involved with opera has ever engaged in self-justification to soothe a wounded oversized ego.

Hang on. Yes, they have.

The Jockey Club members absolutely contributed to sinking Tannhäuser and maybe Wagner was sincere in thinking they were the main cause for its resounding failure. But there were plenty of other reasons for such a spectacular collapse.

First, there was the choice of Tannhäuser. Wagner picked it because it had a proven track record, both in Germany and outside, including some performances in Strassbourg, with good or favourable reviews in French publications by Liszt, a darling of the French public (and his future father-in-law, but that’s an unholy mess for another time), and the French poets Gérard de Nerval and Théophile Gautier. Their views and taste might have been rather avant-garde, but they showed that the French public could appreciate Wagner’s aesthetics. He also felt he could improve on the score which he had written early enough in his career that revisiting it sounded like a good idea.

So far, so good. But the source material was quite strange. Tannhäuser was a historical figure of wide literary renown in medieval Germany, said to be so good a poet and singer as to inspire suspicion on the provenance of his skills. This is fleshed out in the opera where the first act shows him being feted in Venus’s palace where the goddess is foisting her love and adoration on him. But the hero has grown tired of mindless pleasures and gets himself booted out for saying the name of the Virgin Mary. He emerges in Thuringia where he is soon among his peers about to engage in a singing contest, the winner of which will marry Elizabeth, daughter of the local landgrave. Whereas his rivals sing about ideal love, he prefers to intone about pleasure and Venus. This shocks the other knights’ delicate sensitivities who express their criticism by trying to execute him on the spot. He is only saved by the intervention of Elizabeth who obtains a reprieve for him by making him swear to go seek the Pope’s forgiveness. When we next meet Tannhäuser, he is back from Rome, having failed. Elizabeth died praying for his salvation. He faces Venus and her temptations one last time, is about to give in, when his friend says the name of Elizabeth, shocking him back into virtue... and death, when he sees the body of his beloved about to be buried. And that’s it, that’s the whole plot. Even by opera standards, it’s shockingly thin and incredibly light on action.

Elizabeth is as dead as the opera Tannhäuser in Paris.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

To French audiences, it was worse, because French opera had evolved from lyrical tragedy and so dense plots and detailed character psychology was a requirement rather than a nice extra. Further, acceptable topics were mythological subjects, historical ones, or adaptations of popular plays or novels. Tannhäuser was a mix of the first two (itself a stylistic faux pas in Paris) but a Roman goddess making her home in the hills of medieval Germany to praise its leading poet was understandably strange and despite sustained interest by the French romantics for medieval figures, Tannhäuser was virtually unknown except maybe among a very specific subset of scholars. It is in fact baffling that Wagner chose Tannhäuser rather than Tristan und Isolde, which he deemed unlikely to be to the taste of the French public. But the French were quite familiar with the myth of Tristan and Iseut, part of the Matter of Britain. Even though it didn’t get created until 1865, Wagner had completed most of the work on it between 1857 and 1859 and had entertaining, for a time, the proposition of Emperor Pedro II of Brazil to come to Rio to create it. The plot was more intricate, its details familiar for a Parisian audience, there was actual action, and the audience would have been flattered to be deemed worthy of a world premiere, especially ahead of a German city.

It got worse.

Wagner was infamous for his belief that music and language were consubstantial: that one couldn’t write music in anything other than one’s native tongue. This was the source of some of his more vitriolic antisemitic tracts, especially when it came to Meyerbeer, a man he owed stylistically as well as financially (Meyerbeer never even asked him for repayment of his debts; Wagner didn’t hate him any less for it), and who effortlessly composed with German, Italian, and French librettos, to great success in all three. Thus he considered any translation of his work impossible in the first place, but the lure of Parisian success overcame his principles. He very closely supervised the process of translating the libretto he had written himself. The work was done by Nuitter, Roche, and Lindau. Wagner complained enough about the latter’s delays and fired him. However, Lindau sued for the right to have his name on the posters announcing the opera nonetheless, since he claimed his work was still being used. The matter was tied up in the courts for some weeks, and Lindau was about to get the worst end of the stick when Nuitter and Roche graciously agreed to forgo their names being on the poster, leaving only Wagner’s. Still, it created resentment around the production and the weeklies were happy to keep the public informed about Wagner not being a particularly easy customer.

It got worse.

Wagner argued that the title role should be sung by someone already used to his style of composing. That was a reasonable request, as Wagner’s way of writing and composing eschewed the traditional arias. But that meant asking a German singer, Albert Niemann, to come to Paris, thus depriving the French celebrities from a chance at the role. It also meant that he’d learn translated lyrics in a phonetic way, a practice on which French opera goers are split to this very day. In the event, it was probably a bad choice: Charles Baudelaire, a household name on the French literary scene and a Wagner supporter even in the debacle, condemned him for singing out of tune and throwing tantrums. It cannot have helped Wagner’s reputation among the French tenors deemed not good enough to sing his work, and if ever there was a class quick to vent their disquiet to the press, it was them. Not for nothing have their female counterparts, prima donnas, became notorious in multiple languages for their behaviour when thwarted.

It got worse.

In order to get the musicians of the orchestra used to his musical style and able to execute his work flawlessly, Wagner drilled them in endless rehearsals: no fewer than a hundred and sixty-four were necessary, more than one a day. The norm at the time was for between two and four in total. Those rehearsals would have been in addition to all those the musicians needed to make for the other operas of the season. Even successful operas did not perform that many times in their first creation. The incensed musicians did not hesitate to complain. Since Wagner favoured heavy instrumentation, any journalist who was keen to pen an article had about a hundred irate musicians to turn to for copy.

It got worse.

The conductor of the Opéra orchestra was Louis Dietch. In 1839, Wagner had offered the Flying Dutchman as a libretto to the Opéra, but he was a nobody then and the Opéra management was stringent in who it would allow on stage. It had bought the idea off Wagner, thanked him for his trouble, commissioned Paul Foucher to rewrite a French libretto and... young composer Louis Dietsch to write the music. It was forgettable enough that it only got revived in 2013, as a diptych with Wagner’s own Flying Dutchman. Both men could not stand each other and when Wagner demanded to conduct the first three performances, following tradition there, Dietsch turned him down flat. By this point, the orchestra must have been so fed up with the constant rehearsals that they sided with their conductor against their torturer. This fight was public enough to be chronicled in the musical weeklies, along with all the other gossip about the production.

It got worse.

The Opéra management may have been thinking of the potential disruption caused by the Jockey Club members and might have used that argument to get Wagner to bend... but ballet had been part of the French arts since the days of the Valois court in the sixteenth century. Opera had been introduced in France by welding it to ballet so that French tastes could adapt more easily to the Italian innovation. Ever since the days of Louis XIV, ballet had been a part of opera, and as the French grand opéra came to dominate the genre from about 1830 on, it would have been preposterous to propose a major work without one. In addition, Wagner deliberately put his at the beginning of the first act, an intentional provocation towards the Club. He argued that this was for narrative reasons, but the Wartburg court setting of the second act was just as much a possible staging for a dance as the palace of Venus.

It got worse.

Wagner was not just an innovative composer, he intended to make his new way shine brightly for all to see and penned pamphlets and prefaces to support his claim. It was from those that his adversaries derived the expression of “music of the future” that they turned against him when he claimed posterity would vindicate him. And his rather rabid followers riled his opponents, whether conservatives like Paul Scudo or innovators striving in different directions like Hector Berlioz. They and Wagner made the rather audacious claim that before him, opera had not ever truly existed. This was a massive slap in the face of everybody who had ever composed one, a rather long list as the genre was more than two hundred and fifty years old by that point, and in a constant state of flux as every new generation renewed it. The Parisian public, considering itself the arbiter of world taste in opera (with good reason if considerable ego) was particularly stung.

It got worse.

There was a semi-professional claque at the Opéra. You paid them off in advance to prevent jeers; you paid more if you wanted them to initiate cheers. Wagner declined to give them any money. A principled stand but one that ensured nobody would come to the rescue when the Jockey Club members started their hullabaloo.

Act III. By now, there's no saving it. The opera may as well sing it's death aria in Paris.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And that’s about as bad as it got. By the end of the production, there must have been passing few toes untrod upon by Wagner in his bid to conquer the Parisian Opéra.

Finally, the Jockey Club members are rightly remembered as wastrels whose hooliganism prevented Tannhäuser from having a fairer chance. But we are not required to take Wagner at his word that their opposition merely revolved around sulking over not seeing their mistresses dancing, which Wagner had consciously made worse. Indeed, the composer himself wrote they came to the premiere with mechanical whistles, enabling them to sustain their heckling throughout. This suggests premeditation rather than being driven mad with disappointment on the spot. Their objections to Wagner had a nationalistic tinge and a political one: they disapproved of him as they did of most German composers and especially because they viewed him as a democratic radical, having taken part in the 1848 revolution in Germany and being driven to exile because of it. Furthermore, it was not unheard of that an attempt at sylistic revolution would be met by a battle among the audience: this had been the case between conservative neoclassical and radical romantics in 1830 over Victor Hugo’s Hernani, with the former booing every line and the latter clapping just as strongly. One can lament it and the Jockey Club members’ reasoning, but it is probable that their actions didn’t stem solely from their frustrated libido, as Wagner sought to portray.

Given all these problems, it seems hard to build a case for their being a chance of Tannhäuser not being met with failure in Paris: there are too many hurdles to clear and some of them come directly from Wagner’s intractable character. Nevertheless, if Tristan and Isolde had been picked instead of Tannhäuser, with fewer rehearsals and some French leads, it is possible it could have been successful. It enjoyed official patronage, a part of the audience was primed and ready to approve, and while the press’s coverage would undoubtedly been negative overall, it would not have taken the absolutely gleeful tone it did over the second fortnight of March as the opera took its time to die.

If Wagner does not leave Paris depressed, ever deeper in debt and with a martyr complex, there’s a chance that his life takes a different path, one where he is not attracted by King Louis of Bavaria’s offer later in the decade and instead tries his luck once again in a city that had not resolutely turned its back on him.

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