18 April 2016 at 10.36am | 1 Comment
Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser contains few arias, but the small number it has are all remarkable for their beauty. Best known perhaps is Wolfram’s Act III aria ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’, his hymn to the Evening Star. This beautiful aria is unusual within Wagner’s style. It is more Italianate than is usual for Wagner, arguably modelled on the preghiera (prayer) aria popular in bel canto and Verdi. It it one of Wagner’s very few arias for baritone, rather than his more usual writing for the lower bass-baritone (the Dutchman, Wotan, Hans Sachs) or bass (Daland, Hagen, Gurnemanz). Finally, it’s a rare example of a Wagnerian male character behaving altruistically.
Wolfram’s altruism is the linchpin of his character. He loves Elisabeth, but accepts her fidelity to Tannhäuser, and devotes all his efforts to bringing the couple together. When in Act III Elisabeth decides to die in order to save Tannhäuser’s soul, he accepts her decision, rather than urging her to forget her absent beloved. Even when Elisabeth refuses to let him accompany her on her final journey home, Wolfram makes no protest, and instead remains alone as she leaves to delicate, ecclesiastical-sounding chords in the woodwind. Harp arpeggios herald the start of Wolfram’s Hymn.
Wolfram initially sings in arioso (between speech and song), reflecting on the darkness of the evening to melancholy, low-pitched music, accompanied by slow funereal chords in the brass. The aching dissonances as he describes the soul yearning to escape the world convey his sorrow at Elisabeth’s approaching death. But as Wolfram catches sight of the Evening Star, he takes comfort in its light, marked by ethereal high tremolo strings, delicate musical textures and the quickening, higher vocal line. To rippling harp arpeggios, he prays for Elisabeth’s safe journey from earth to Heaven.
This main section of the aria highlights both Wolfram’s tenderness and his restraint. On the one hand, the often chromatic melodic lines and the delicate ornamentation of the word ‘Engel’ (angel) reflect Wolfram’s love for Elisabeth and pain at losing her. On the other, the aria’s formal structure, with its steady harp and string accompaniment (reminiscent of various Italian bel canto arias), regular eight-bar phrases, measured pace and muted dynamics show how Wolfram keeps his emotions firmly under control – he is, after all, the same man whose song in praise of chaste love in the Act II Song Contest so riled the passionate Tannhäuser.
Only in the final phrases of the aria, as the string accompaniment changes from arpeggios to more agitated tremolos, and the funereal horns return, do we feel that Wolfram’s sorrow may overcome him. However, he masters himself in the final bars, and closes his aria in an exquisite pianissimo (very soft) final phrase. The orchestra quietly echoes the aria’s opening melody – until the arrival of the tormented Tannhäuser shatters the meditative atmosphere.
Wagner’s principal male characters – with a few exceptions – tend to be combative types, at odds with society. Wolfram, like Hans Sachs, is unusual in his acceptance of his fate, and his determination to help others, even if he himself suffers in the process. Never is his stoicism more movingly displayed than in ‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’, both an expression of his devotion to Elisabeth, and an example of how a musician can express such devotion, and perhaps find some solace, through their art.
Tannhäuser runs 26 April–16 May 2016. Tickets are still available.
The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Dr and Mrs Michael West, Simon and Virginia Robertson, Maggie Copus, Peter and Fiona Espenhahn, Malcolm Herring, the Tannhäuser Production Syndicate and the Wagner Circle.