We know, however,
that Tannh�user, who has spent a year with Venus in her grotto, does not share
his sentiments. Remarking something to the effect that "if you want to
worship cold perfection, take a look at the stars," Tannh�user replies: and
goes on with his explicit conception of the nature of love. "By now
Tannhauser has lost control of himself," says the austere Ernest Newman.
"Madly he sings his song from the first act in praise of the goddess of
earthly love, the fountain of all grace and beauty and joy; he ends with a cry
to all poor mortals who have never known her love to fly with him to the hill
of Venus. At this unblushing revelation of where he had spent the time of his
absence from them the assembly breaks up in horror. The ladies leave the hall
with gestures of dismay."
singing contest makes up the whole plot of Die Meistersinger. But of all the
sloppily run contests! In Act One, Pogner announces a forthcoming song contest,
the prize being the hand of his daughter, Eva, provided she consents—which, of
course, renders the whole offer a swindle. Walther, who has had his eye on Eva,
decides to take the examination for the title of Mastersinger so he can compete
in the contest. He flunks miserably, thus eliminating himself. But in Act Two
it is obvious that Walther and Eva are going steady, which again makes the
approaching contest meaningless. In Act Three, to nobody's astonishment,
Walther walks off with the prize, leaving us with the spectacle of a useless
contest with only two entrants, won by a competitor who is ineligible.
There is a good
deal of this sort of thing in Wagner: the scene in Parsifal, when the hero,
poaching on the grounds of Montsalvat with his bow and arrow, brings down a
stuffed swan; and the garden scene in the same opera, when the magician
Klingsor throws the javelin at Parsifal, but it stops in mid-air and Parsifal
makes a sensational barehanded catch. It may be that contests which are so
mysteriously decided cannot really be called sporting events, but they serve,
at any rate, to indicate the extent of something like sport in opera and the
strange changes that take place in sport when it unites with music.
One of these
weird games that exist only in opera appears in Schwanda, the work of the Czech
composer Jaromir Weinberger that was first produced in Prague in 1927. In the
course of the action we find Schwanda, the bagpipe player, in Hell (never mind
how he got there). The devil, who is bored, hints that a little bagpipe playing
might be fun. Schwanda refuses. Then the devil tricks him into signing away his
Just as the devil
is about to arrange a little party for Schwanda and a few intimate friends,
Babinski strolls in. He is a friend of Schwanda's (and never mind how he got
there, either). Babinski proposes a game of cards. The devil accepts with
alacrity. He names the stakes: if he wins he gets Schwanda's and Babinski's
souls. If he loses he forfeits half his kingdom and Schwanda gets his soul
The game that
follows is odd even by the standards of these queer contests we have reviewed.
They keep calling out numbers, and the devil keeps drawing fresh cards out of
his boot. Just as he is about to declare himself the winner, Babinski thrusts
his hand, into his boot and draws the winning card. The moral seems to be that
for once virtue has outcheated the cheater and that rigged games don't
There is at least
one honest card game in opera. It is the game that Alfredo Germont plays
against Baron Duophol in the second act of Verdi's La Traviata. In Flora's
mansion (after the masqueraders pretending to be matadors from Madrid have sung
of killing five fine bulls in one day's contest) all sing: "La palestra
dischiudiamo agli audaci giuocator" (Let us throw the portals open to the
gamblers who wait). We learn that Alfredo takes Baron Duophol for about $800,
but only because his luck is good. No funny business with cards in boots or
stockings, or pacts with the devil.
But what sort of
game are they playing? The cards are cut and presumably dealt. "On
this," sings the Baron, "I stake a hundred louis." Alfredo sings
that he'll see him.
Then a kibitzer
named Gastone cuts the cards again and sings to Alfredo: "Un asso...un
fante" (An ace...a knave...). "You've won it."
double?" says the Baron.