Venus and Elisabeth:  How Wagner Distinguishes Characters

by Doug Peck

In order to illustrate Tannhäuser's attraction to the extremes of chaste and vulgar love, Wagner creates a distinct dichotomy between the licentious Venus and the pure Elisabeth.  Using a variety of dramatic, melodic, harmonic, and orchestral techniques, Wagner masterfully distinguishes his two heroines from each other.  In the care of inspired interpreters, these differences can become even more apparent.

One must not underestimate the importance of the creators of these roles.  Wagner wrote Venus for Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, the early nineteenth century's analogue for Malibran or Callas.  A former Norma, Schröder-Devrient clearly possessed a large top range, which Wagner readily exploits with frequent upward leaps.  The singing-actress' legendary stage presence and declamatory style likewise welcomed Wagner to assign Venus many loudly hurled exclamations and vacillations between insult and plea.  Elisabeth was created by the eighteen year old Johanna Wagner, who later retooled her instrument under the tutelage of Pauline Viardot to become one of the age's most important mezzo-sopranos, acclaimed as Tancredi, Fidès, and Wagner's own Ortrud.  Wagner must have recognized Johanna Wagner's inevitably lush middle register, writing much of Elisabeth's music in that range.  That Elisabeth does not have many high notes may be a reflection of the creator's limitations.  Positioning an eighteen-year-old debutante against the established institution that was Schröder-Devrient could only have emphasized the world of difference between Elisabeth and Venus.

Tannhäuser's libretto offers many clues into these wildly different women.  In the opera's stormy first scene, Venus' emotions waver between anger and supplication, whereas Elisabeth's dedication to Tannhäuser remains consistent throughout the opera.   Venus is a tempermental, womanly goddess, while Elisabeth is the paragon of the devoted Wagnerian girl who redeems her lover through her own death.  The manner in which these women speak about themselves further distinguishes them.  Venus lets her ego get the better of her, frequently boasting her status as "der Liebe Göttin," while Elisabeth quietly admits "Im Traum bin ich und tör'ger als ein Kind" ("I live in a dream, as foolish as a child").  These women also interact with Tannhäuser in different ways.  Venus' phrases occasionally overlap with Tannhäuser's, but the two rarely sing together.  Elisabeth, however, sings a grand duet with her lover, sharing similar text and sentiments.  Addressing Tannhäuser, Venus employs a vocabulary of words, ranging from "Gelibeter" to "Betörter," "süßer Freund" to "Bettler." Elisabeth, however, only uses three words in direct address to Tannhäuser: "Heinrich," "unglücksel'ge" and the simple, tender "du." One can infer from such name-calling that Venus' love is one of artifice and semantics, while Elisabeth, who calls Tannhäuser by his given name, loves with more honesty and ardor.

More striking than such textual concerns are the differing styles of vocal writing assigned to the two women.  Elisabeth's music is frankly not a great distance from her predecessors such as Agathe and even Pamina.  Further, her melodic line in "Gepriesen sei die Stunde" is reminiscent of Leonore's in "O namenlose Freude." Her phrases lie mostly midrange, only moving higher in great moments of agitation, such as the high Bs of "Dich theure Halle" and "Haltet ein!" These phrases excepted, Elisabeth rarely sings above the passagio.   Many of her phrases end on the E in the soprano's break, rather than a higher, more climactic note.  The absence of a blaring top tone over the Act Two ensemble suggests both Wagner's pandering to Johanna Wagner's vocal range and Elisabeth's inherent unflashiness.  Much of Elisabeth's music is somewhat plain and recitative-like, making her inspired moments all the more radiant.  Interacting with other characters, particularly the Langrave, Elisabeth hides her best melodies out of a sense of modesty.  It is when she is alone that her song soars to the highest Wagnerian peaks.  "Dich theure Halle" is one of the most exuberant of all melodies and "Allmächt'ge Jungfrau" is simply arresting in its pathos.  Venus' melodies, each the ultimate in lushness and display, are markedly different.   Particularly in the Paris Version, Venus is given many achingly chromatic phrases, as well as some ornamented, almost florid, singing.  Mirroring her impetuosity, Venus frequently ascends to top A-flat and B-flat and often makes exciting downward octave jumps.  Venus' music is so stunning that each of her phrases could be the genesis of a popular tune.  Of course, Wagner does not allow most of these melodic kernels to develop, but instead gives the impression that Venus can create and abandon beauty at will.  Her phrases, particularly in "Geliebter, komm'," are long and expansive, tempting Tannhäuser with extreme aural splendor.  The final notes of the two women are illustrative of their variance: Venus hurls a fortissimo high B-flat, while Elisabeth fades away on a pianissimo middle voice G.  Melodically speaking, the difference between Elisabeth and Venus is tremendous.

The post-Tristan Paris Version's use of harmony distinguishes Venus from Elisabeth even further.  Replacing insistent chords that seldom stray from F-sharp and remind certain listeners of Elisabeth's grand aria with difficult-to-analyze orchestral wandering, the Paris Venus is even more seductive.  While Venus sings twisted, chromatic lines over such technical wizardry as the Tristan chord (a half-diminished seventh), Elisabeth's harmonies are much simpler.  She sings almost no chromatic phrases and her extended passages remain much more tonally centered.  When singing with Tannhäuser, Elisabeth favors the intimate sixths that suggested true closeness for Bellini, while Venus' vocal lines tend to contradict Tannhäuser's.  Elisabeth's two arias are in G and G-flat, very traditional keys for soprano arias, whereas "Geliebter, komm'" is in F-sharp, a key rarer to opera.  Wagner's orchestrations demarcate the two women even further.  Venus sings long, high passages over tutti chords and winds and brasses usually double her vocal line.  Her wildest outbursts demand a combination of beauty and force and are sung over a full orchestra at high volume, taxing even the most strenuous singers.  The orchestration of Elisabeth's music is very different.  Many of her phrases are unaccompanied, again another probable courtesy to Johanna Wagner's young voice.  The orchestra does not double her phrases and she seldom sings over the brass.  While the orchestral radiance of "Dich theure Halle" demands a certain amount of vocal heft, "Allmächt'ge Jungfrau" features sparse accompaniment, allowing Elisabeth to spin the softest pianissimo and still be heard.  The entrance of a contrapuntal bass clarinet before "Doch, konnt' ich jeden Felt nich büsen" is the most advanced moment of orchestration in Elisabeth's music and is of great beauty.  In Wagner, soft playing on solo wind instruments usually signifies youth and naivete, and the inclusion of this device in Elisabeth's final moments reminds the listener that she is not that much older or wiser than the Shepherd of the first act.  Wagner's assignment of musical form further characterizes the two women.  Elisabeth is given clear set pieces, such as her two arias and grand duet with Tannhäuser, while Venus dodges traditional musical forms, singing mostly in interruptions and exclamations.  Her musical paragraphs, even "Geliebter, komm'" can hardly be considered arias.  Elisabeth, a simple human, does not abandon convention, while goddess Venus sings in Wagner's fluid, more dramatic style.  Wagner's orchestral writing acutely distinguishes the womanly, passionate Venus from the young, simple Elisabeth.

For his 1971 recording of Tannhäuser, Sir Georg Solti found great interpreters in Helga Dernesch and Christa Ludwig.  Dernesch, perhaps too grand of voice and temperament for the role, sings a very touching Elisabeth, while Ludwig offers the most vocally resplendent Venus on record.  She relishes Venus' mood shifts, possessing both an irresistibly creamy legato and a blaring forte.  Her performance, so secure and enjoyable, is the benchmark by which other Venuses are judged.  Waltraud Meier does not come close to Ludwig's achievement on Bernard Haitink's 1985 recording.  Meier, twenty-nine at the time, sounds uneasy in much of Venus' music and the interpretative flair that would grace her later work (including a stunning Venus in David Alden's 1995 Munich production) was not yet under control.  Haitink's set also features the overparted Lucia Popp, who portrays Elisabeth's youth and innocence, despite the fact that she is defeated by music far too heavy for her lyric voice.  No such problem faces Renata Tebaldi in her Naples performances.  Although she suffers from an Italian translation and a very weak Tannhäuser, Tebaldi is simply stunning.  This Elisabeth seems perhaps a decade older than she should, but such an extra dose of femininity is so welcome that one regrets Tebaldi's abandoning of Wagner.

The Metropolitan Opera's 1986 production displays the differences between Elisabeth and Venus very convincingly.  The gorgeous Tatiana Troyanos possessed as radiant an instrument as Ludwig's and she uses it to tremendous effect.  In her third act appearance, her singing is so seductive that Bernd Weikl's Wolfram is almost won over.   The Elisabeth, Eva Marton, presents Elisabeth's youthful innocence better than Dernesch and as well as Popp.  Her singing is of the highest caliber and Marton really inhabits the role, to the point of shedding real tears when she learns of Tannhäuser's betrayal.  Even a musical matter as minor as the turn is used to distinguish Elisabeth from Venus.  Troyanos chooses to sing her fioriture in a reckless, sluttish manner, markedly contrasting Eva Marton's chaste, exact turns.  This precise detail is indicative of the entire production, which so effectively illustrates the distance between Elisabeth and Venus.

No performance elucidates these differences more beautifully than Dame Gwenyth Jones' assumption of Elisabeth and Venus in the 1978 Bayreuth production.  Jones loses herself in both roles, creating a pelvicly-centered, regal Venus Tannhäuser can barely resist and an excitable, flitty Elisabeth horribly crushed by Tannhäuser's betrayal.  Vocally, Jones give two distinct performances, churning out her achingly lush, huge voice as Venus and scaling it down to whiter, more earnest tones as Elisabeth.  In Elisabeth's moments of outburst, Jones has more than enough vocal meat to portray the girl's tremendous agitation.  Jones is not an artist afraid to suffer onstage and her Elisabeth is even more heart-felt than Marton's or Tebaldi's.  Jones is so convincing that one forgets that she is an actor and not Elisabeth and Venus themselves.  It is a tribute to Jones' artistry that she could more accurately distinguish these characters than the various pairs of singers discussed above.

Ultimately, Tannhäuser winds up with neither woman.  His actions with Venus destroy Elisabeth and his love for Elisabeth makes Venus disappear.  However, Wagner's music suggests that it is Elisabeth who triumphs in the end.  The joy with which Tannhäuser receives the news of his redemption is more fervent than any passion felt in the arms of Venus.  Dying with her name on his lips, Tannhäuser clearly favors the devoted Elisabeth to the tempermental Venus.  The great pain Wagner took to make Venus and Elisabeth diametrically opposite people renders Tannhäuser's conflict more interesting and relevant.   Employing melodic, harmonic, and orchestral means, Wagner managed to plumb the depths of human emotion and create two of his most distinct characters.

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