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Crawling to Rome

A review of Tannhäuser by chorister Tom Reed

Act I
In a time when painful pilgrimages were about the only fun to be had, it is no wonder that a town like Venusberg would become a tourist hotspot. Known for its loose ladies of highly flexible morals, it was conveniently located in a disreputable region just off the Thuringian pilgrims’ route between the towns of Taltitz and Plauen. There it siphoned off much of the religious pilgrim trade originally headed for Rome by promising to put the evil back in medieval. Tannhäuser is a frequent customer, who has gotten bored playing “catch the naughty nun” with the local trollops. He’s heard about a singing contest at some club in Wartburg and decides to give it a try.

On his way to Wartburg he encounters a group of male penitents slowly crawling their way to Rome to receive absolution. Carved into their backs with thick red syrup are their individual sins. (I asked that my sin be “BURGER KING,” but that has too many letters, so we compromised and made it “HATE.” When I cover the “H” with my costume, it appropriately reads: “ATE.”) Unfortunately the quick-drying syrup tends to stick to the costume, which then pulls and tugs painfully. Think of this Tannhäuser run as a twenty-four-day back waxing, one hair at a time. It takes the pained penitents almost three minutes just to crawl the 64 feet from stage right to stage left. If you factor in the mandatory fifteen-minute breaks, that’s just 947 feet per hour. At this rate, the 632 mile trip by knee from Wartburg to Rome will take 32 weeks, 4 days, 6 hours and 28 minutes, give or take the Alps. And that’s just one way. Think of the overtime!

They invite Tannhäuser to crawl along, but he isn’t about to join the chorus when there are even bigger bucks to be made as a soloist in Wartburg. Instead, he heads off to the audition as the distant voices of the penitents are heard fading toward the basement showers, where they wash away their sins, wearing bathing caps thoughtfully provided by the wig department.

Act II
Wartburg’s nobility is all pumped over the big singing competition at the glorious Hall of Song hosted by Prince Hermann. As they arrive, the guests are greeted by Hermann’s daughter Elisabeth, whose enthusiastic pleasantries seem rather forced. And no wonder. What a dump! There’s evidence of a fire, the roof has big holes, the soggy floor is rotten and overgrown with weeds, and most of the seating is on narrow, slanted benches. Clearly the rumors that the place had been a whorehouse in Act I were true. But couldn’t the cheapskate Prince have slapped on a coat of paint? Or at least cut down the huge tree sprouting in the middle of the room! Poor Elisabeth!! For her sake the stunned guests do their best to appear delighted to be there.

Given the filthy surroundings, the ladies immediately regret their decision to come dressed as May Queen Madonnas in white gowns with blue veils. Yet they smile stoically through the squalor, gazing ever heavenward with fixed serenity—a posture more or less mandated by the tug of their floor-length veils as they attempt to back their butts up onto the crooked benches to sit down. The men glance about the hall in search of something—anything—to compliment. All lift their voices in the exuberant refrain, “Freudig begrüßen wir die edle Halle / wo Kunst und Frieden immer nur verweil.” (“Joyfully we greet this old Hall where sluts and libertines used to hang out.”) They marvel at the architecture. “Wo lange noch der Ruf erschalle.” (“How long the roof has lasted!”) No one mentions the tree. At last their song culminates in a great round of praise for their august host: “Thüringens Fürsten, Landgraf Hermann, Heil!!” (“Hail to Thuringia’s first slumlord!”)

Hermann kicks off the song contest with a long-winded speech. Internationally renowned director Graham Vick has carefully coached the chorus on the subtleties of Hermann’s speech, providing a word-for-word translation so that each chorister may create his or her own individualized responses based on a thorough understanding of the text. For example, Hermann’s line, “Wenn unser Schwert in blutig ernstern Kämpfen / stritt für des deutschen Reiches Majestät ,/ wenn wir dem grimmen Welfen widerstanden /  und dem verderbenvollen Zwiespalt wehrten: / so ward von euch nicht minder Preis errungen!” means, “LOOK PROUD!”

Hermann announces that his daughter, Elisabeth, will present the winner with the grand prize, which just happens to be herself. Well, jaws just hit the floor! No one knew the Prince was so cheap as to give away his own daughter in a tacky song contest, rather than shell out a few lousy pfennigs for a proper prize!"

While Elisabeth struggles to hide her total shock and humiliation, a contestant by the name of Wolfram tries to restore some sense of decorum by singing about family values. But nervous Tannhäuser keeps thinking it’s his turn, and repeatedly interrupts with his song, a smutty little number he learned on one of his debauched “hohen Fests” in Venusberg. Well, in a repressed town like Wartburg, that’s all it takes. The guys get turned on and start jumping the ladies. Then a brawl breaks out. In the mêlée someone sets fire to the big tree that everyone’s been trying so hard not to notice. Poor Elisabeth! This was supposed to be the highbrow event of the year! Well, that’s it! She flips out and starts telling everyone off in no uncertain terms. The shocked guests come back to their senses, and soon everyone wishes they’d just stayed home. The Prince blames the whole thing on Tannhäuser and orders him to catch the next pilgrimage to Rome, or else!

Elisabeth just can’t shake the blahs. She’s still hanging around the old Hall reliving her humiliating song-competition fiasco when the penitents from Act I come bursting back in from Rome, grinning from ear to ear like naughty boys who skipped Lent and went straight for their Easter baskets. Just what she needs: another mob scene! But it’s obvious from all the arm waving and hallelujahs that they’ve got something shameful to hide. How can they have been to Rome and back in less than three hours? Clearly they decided to forgo Rome and take a ”layover” in Venusberg instead. Those conservatives, I tell you!

Convinced that everyone has swallowed their phony absolution story, they head for home with a lot more spring in their step, leaving Elisabeth feeling more depressed than ever. In a clumsy attempt to snap her out of it, Wolfram snaps her neck by mistake. What a putz! Then while she drifts off to heaven, he tries to ease his guilty conscience by singing some sappy ditty about the joys of floating past Venus in the afterlife. Tannhäuser shows up, babbling something about the Pope’s staff denying him absolution. Too bad. He could really use it right now, as he, too, is about to blast off and join the late Elisabeth out there in space.

Just then, a sudden rainstorm drives the pilgrims back inside, but the leaky roof provides no protection at all. As the opera concludes in a deluge, the mysterious source of all those fires is at last revealed, as dozens of homeless urchins come popping up out of the flooded floor like an impromptu Whack-a-Mole convention. But by this point nobody cares what’s happening on stage because the music is just so damned gorgeous!

Special thanks to chorister Andrew Truett for the “(H)ATE” gag.