In the most delightfully unexpected surprise, Ken (Popehat) White is becoming an opera blogger! And he has a synopsis of Tannhäuser that will have you rolling.
Regarding the Venusberg scene:
Tannhauser and Venus are lounging in bed. They’re watching a dance/orgy/cage match among Naiads, Sirens, the Three Graces, fauns, satyrs, nymphs, Baccchantes, and cupids. No, really.
That’s the ballet. There’s no dialogue, and it’s not Wagner’s best music, though it’s not terrible. It does…answer the question “can an orgy be tedious?”
Ken’s in good company: Mark Twain also adored Tannhäuser, as he wrote in his classic essay “At The Shrine of St. Wagner”:
Yesterday they played the only operatic favorite I have ever had — an opera which has always driven me mad with ignorant delight whenever I have heard it — “Tannhäuser.” I heard it first when I was a youth; I heard it last in the last German season in New York.
Twain’s also describes the first act of Parsifal as well as anyone ever has:
I trust that I know as well as anybody that singing is one of the most entrancing and bewitching and moving and eloquent of all the vehicles invented by man for the conveying of feeling; but it seems to me that the chief virtue in song is melody, air, tune, rhythm, or what you please to call it, and that when this feature is absent what remains is a picture with the color left out. I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of “Parsifal” anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or melody; one person performed at a time — and a long time, too — often in a noble, and always in a high-toned, voice; but he only pulled out long notes, then some short ones, then another long one, then a sharp, quick, peremptory bark or two — and so on and so on; and when he was done you saw that the information which he had conveyed had not compensated for the disturbance. Not always, but pretty often. If two of them would but put in a duet occasionally and blend the voices; but no, they don’t do that. The great master, who knew so well how to make a hundred instruments rejoice in unison and pour out their souls in mingled and melodious tides of delicious sound, deals only in barren solos when he puts in the vocal parts. It may be that he was deep, and only added the singing to his operas for the sake of the contrast it would make with the music. Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it. Strictly described, it is a practicing of difficult and unpleasant intervals, mainly. An ignorant person gets tired of listening to gymnastic intervals in the long run, no matter how pleasant they may be. In “Parsifal” there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.
My last Tannhäuser in New York featured the sublime Bernd Weikl as Wolfram. His Evening Star was the highlight of the evening without doubt.
Oh, and I do use umlauts, because language pedant.