“German Opera. — Mr. Richard Wagner’s opera of the ‘Tannhauser’ was played last night, for the second time, at the Academy of Music. The director was Mr. Carl Bergmann, who some years since brought out the work at the Stadt Theatre, where it was a complete failure. Since then, the general public has become familiar with the overture, and through that brilliant pot pourri, with the principal themes of the opera. The advantage of this acquaintance was noticeable last night in frequent and genial bursts of applause. Indeed, we have seldom seen an audience that was more attentive, respectful, and quick to appreciate. We are heartily glad that it was so, not from any particular love of Wagner, but because we should be sorry to see a New-York audience guilty of the rudeness and obstinate blindness that characterized the Parisian audience when this opera was first produced in the gay metropolis of la belle France. The least we can do for a man of study and long effort, is to give him a patient hearing.
It was long before Mr. Wagner received that attention in any part of the world. The composer of many operas, large and small, it has only been his good fortune to participate in one immediate success. This was ‘Rienzi.’ All his other works were positive and unmistakable failures on their respective first nights. Mr. Wagner’s latest production (‘Tristan und Isolde’) is as yet unsung. It was placed in rehearsal at one of the principal Vienna opera-houses, and the artists studied their parts for many months, but they were unable to commit them to memory, and the attempt had therefore to be abandoned. Nevertheless Mr. Wagner can boast at this moment of a very large and intelligent audience. In all the theatres of Germany his music is played, and we think fairly appreciated. Here we are acquainted with small parts of ‘Rienzi,’ the ‘Fliegende Hollander,’ ‘Lohengrin,’ and now with the whole of ‘Tannhauser.’
The composer is a man of about fifty years, who has been reared in a school of the bitterest adversity. He is, in a a [sic] measure, self-taught, and, like all self-taught men, mistakes the irregular discoveries of an inquisitive spirit for the intense inspirations of genius. Chilled by constant failures, by worldly hardships, by pecuniary difficulties, and by political troubles, he has sought not repose, but excitement in himself. The world gave him nothing, why should he care for the world? Thus, from an early extravagance of style, which genial applause might have softened, he has steadily proceeded to greater extravagances until, as we see, his last work is pronounced, even by a friendly tribunal, to be impossible. The championship, too, which the Weimar coterie has generously exercised in bringing Mr. Wagner before the public, has had its evil consequences. Champions generally sympathise [sic] with the meanest attributes of their heroes. In this particular case they have been at particular pains to extol the exuberant vagaries of their friend, rather than to warn him against the excesses which have already, in a manner, terminated his career. A man who cares little for the world, and much for the opinion of a few friends, is in a sad way—philosophy to the contrary, not withstanding.
The ‘Tannhauser’ is a work which, if it has not revolutionized music, has at least precipitated changes in the relations of the great masses of the operatic drama. It is an earnest protest against flippancy; a serious effort to treat an old-time lyric subject in a grand chivalrous spirit; a resolute trial to preserve homogeneity in the orchestra, in the chorus, and among the soloists. It is for the latter, aside from technicalities, that the ‘Tannhauser’ is mainly remarkable. The leading singers are not indulged in the graceful vanities of the Italian stage. They have to put up with the rough of the work; to do the best they can in pushing forward the action. There are no arias romanzas [sic], cavatinas and fal-lalls for them, but solid burdens of sound, beneath which they not unfrequently [sic] stagger, and grow weary, and long for rest, and pray for Verdi. Sometimes the compose [sic] leaves them completely in the lurch; backs out of all responsibility, and isolates them grimly as if for a joke. This is the case in the Shepherd’s song of the second scene, where an unhappy rustic is permitted to go astray in a maddening flux of notes and keys without any kind of accompaniment. But usually he is after them with the orchestra, and chorus, and they cannot complain of want of attention.
Are there no melodies in the opera? No tunes, perhaps, but melodious bits, and plenty of them too. In the overture they are presented in a bouquet, and with a brightness of coloring that can hardly be excelled. There are many other morceaux that may be melodious to a highly trained ear, but have no broad and popular claim to that distinction. Wagner, in fact, is deficient in the symmetries of a poet. He either despises form, or has no idea of what that quality is. Hence he cannot be a first-class melodist. Moreover, he is absolutely deficient in spontaneity. In all that he does there is an inflexible sternness, a dogged deliberation of purpose. Perceiving, perhaps, a wider and better field for art he has set out evidently with the intention of wading to it. He despises the pleasant way, because he has not been able to find it. He is never playful, and his nearest approach to repose is grotesqueness. Gayety is the privilege of genius, as dullness is of stupidity. Wagner, although not gay, is assuredly not stupid. He occupies a neutral ground, and occupies it with his nose perked up to the sky, lest he should scent the flowers, and a couple of sturdy legs in the nearest puddles. The well sustained effort of a worker; the fagging completeness of a drudge are perceptible everywhere; but the happy conceits of a poet, the all illuminating lightning flash of genius are not to be found. When he has a melody he knows how to make the most of it. All the best pieces in the ‘Tannhauser’ are elaborated with consummate skill, and they all seem as if they had come from a foundery [sic] rather than a quarry; suggest the hammer, not the chisel.
The dramatic statements or solos, with few exceptions, are of preternatural heaviness—dull, prosy, stupid, and the result of nothing in the world but labor. The heaviest of these things are, of course, those which are most praised by the admirers of the composer; and for people who hate melody, love deformity and cling to dreariness, they are no doubt hugely improving. Wagner himself never despises a melody, but nurses it carefully and artistically—witness the love song of ‘Tannhauser,’ the baritone solo of the first act, and again of the third act. The concerted pieces and the choruses are always vigorous. Some of the combinations are really overwhelming. The orchestral partition is exceedingly full and exceedingly well considered. It is here that we must look if we would see Mr. Wagner to the best advantage. The Italian school deals mainly with the voice, the German with the orchestra; Wagner is as truly the representative of the latter as Verdi is of the former.
There are extravagances of harmony to which it is not necessary to refer. They are frightful on paper, but not always disagreeable to the ear; nevertheless, it must be confessed that some of the modulations are abrupt and harsh. Our forefathers used to go from key to key with great dignity and stateliness; Wagner rushes about like a steam engine.
The performance of this difficult work was extremely creditable to the German company, all the members of which are in the cast. Mr. Bergmann conducted with great steadiness and effect.”