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Wishful Thinking: Wagner's 'Tannhäuser'

Tannhauser's time in a den of sensual pleasures sends him on a pilgrimage to redeem his soul.
Wikimedia Commons
Tannhauser's time in a den of sensual pleasures sends him on a pilgrimage to redeem his soul.

Most of us, in one way or another, maintain a sort of personal wish list. It might include material things, such as a bigger paycheck or a spiffier car. It might also include deeper desires — a rewarding career, a sincere and loving relationship, spiritual fulfillment. But whatever you might aspire to, if you express those aspirations too openly, someone is bound to come up with an old, familiar warning: "Be careful what you wish for ..."

Is there anyone who hasn't heard that one? It's a caution that crops up early in life. Parents and teachers like to use it when kids get overly demanding, asking for things that are dangerous or unattainable. Adults use it on themselves, often when confronted with desirable objectives that require uncomfortable sacrifices. And it's that latter scenario that drives Richard Wagner's early opera, Tannhäuser.

On one level, the message driven home by the opera seems like a grim one: Indulging in purely sensual pleasures will lead to a miserable life, even for a guy who seems to have learned that the hard way, and is trying to change his life. Deeper down though, the drama gets more complex, seeming to suggest that whether your goals are sensual or spiritual — and Wagner, in typical fashion, seems to make a case for both — achieving them may demand everything you have to give.

On World of Opera this week, host Lisa Simeone presents Tannhäuser from London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden — and you might call this the "unabridged" Tannhäuser. The opera underwent a number of revisions over a period of 30 years, and the London production features the longest version of the score. It's sometimes called the Paris version, after the city where it was first heard, and it's sometimes named for Vienna, where it took its final form in 1875. Either way, it seems to have been Wagner's final say on the work. The production also features some of today's finest Wagnerian voices, including tenor Johan Botha in the title role, and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.