Richard Wagner drew his inspiration for Tannhauser from the poet Heinrich Heine, whose Elementargeister described the allure of Venus' grotto. .
Richard Wagner drew his inspiration for Tannhauser from the poet Heinrich Heine, whose Elementargeister described the allure of Venus' grotto. . Wikimedia Commons
Christian Gerhaber........Wolfram von Eschenbach
Timothy Robinson..........Walter von der Vogelweide
Steven Ebel...............Heinrich Der Schrieber
Jeremy White..............Reinmar Von Zweter
The drama takes place in medieval Germany and ACT ONE opens in a mythical realm called the Venusberg — the mountain of Venus, goddess of love and beauty. The minstrel Tannhäuser has been living in the Venusberg for a year, basking in the luxuries of the surroundings, and in the adoration of Venus herself. It seems a perfect life of drinking, dancing and nights of passion. But Tannhäuser is growing weary of endless pleasure, and he's homesick.
Venus senses his restlessness and when she demands to know what's wrong, Tannhäuser tells her he's leaving. He misses the challenges of everyday, earthly life. Her response is both angry and seductive. Urging him to stay, she sensuously reminds him of all the pleasures they've enjoyed together.
When her efforts fail to move him, Venus tells Tannhäuser that he can return to the Venusberg whenever he wants — and she's certain he'll be back. But he cries out that his only salvation is through the Virgin Mary, and at those words the Venusberg disappears. Tannhäuser is left standing in familiar territory — a green valley stretching all the way to the Wartburg, home to the powerful landgrave Hermann.
Tannhäuser drops to his knees in gratitude and a procession passes by singing the famous "Pilgrims' Chorus," which recurs throughout the opera. They're followed by a hunting party, led by Hermann himself. The men in the party are knights and minstrels, Tannhäuser's former colleagues. They're delighted to see him again, but at first Tannhäuser is reluctant to return home. Then one of the men, Wolfram, reminds Tannhäuser of the beautiful young woman who has never forgotten him: Hermann's niece Elisabeth. Hunting horns sound as the men go off to the castle to celebrate.
ACT TWO opens in a great hall at Hermann's castle. Elisabeth sings a beautiful aria in praise of this very place, where she first heard Tannhäuser's voice. Tannhäuser and Elisabeth are back together — and happy — and he soon joins her in an ecstatic duet. But Tannhäuser's friend Wolfram is broken-hearted; he is also in love with Elisabeth, but now realizes that he'll never have her.
Hermann then announces a contest of love songs, saying the winner will be rewarded by Elisabeth, who will offer him whatever she's been moved to give. All the noblemen of the land show up to compete, and Wolfram begins, singing of a noble, pure, lofty kind of love. Others offer similar sentiments and, all the while, Tannhäuser suggests that their singing lacks something crucial.
Then it's Tannhäuser's turn, and his song adds the missing element. Rather than extolling the spiritual aspects of love, he sings of its passion, its earthiness and its pure sensuality — and to back it all up he cites his time in the Venusberg. The guests are shocked, but when knights break out their swords and threaten Tannhäuser, Elisabeth intervenes. She tells everyone that Tannhäuser should get a second chance; he has the right to repent, and redeem himself.
Moved by her compassion, Tannhäuser falls to his knees, but the assembled noblemen won't relent. So Hermann arrives at a compromise: Tannhäuser must make a pilgrimage to Rome and ask the Pope himself for absolution. If it's granted, Tannhäuser can come home and marry Elisabeth. If the Pope refuses, Tannhäuser will be banished and sentenced to death if he dares to return. So Tannhäuser joins a band of pilgrims as the act ends.
ACT THREE takes place several months later. It's autumn, and Elisabeth is on her knees at a shrine to the Virgin, praying for Tannhäuser's return. Wolfram, though he still loves Elisabeth, also prays that her wishes will be granted. Suddenly they hear the song of pilgrims and rush out to see if Tannhäuser is among them. They watch the procession anxiously, but Tannhäuser is not there. Despondent, Elisabeth prays to the Virgin Mary to take her life, so she can continue her prayers from Heaven. She goes off alone, as Wolfram sings of their sorrow.
A ragged figure then appears at the end of the valley. It's Tannhäuser, but at first Wolfram doesn't recognize him. Eventually, Tannhäuser tells the tale of his trip to Rome. Though the Pope pardoned thousands of pilgrims, he refused to absolve Tannhäuser, saying he could no more be forgiven than the Pope's own staff could burst into flower.
Tannhäuser concludes that his only choice is to return to Venus, and whatever happiness he can find in her arms. As Wolfram tries to dissuade him, a red glow appears in the sky, and the voice of Venus beckons. Tannhäuser is on the verge of responding, when Wolfram reminds him of Elisabeth.
At the sound of her name, a line of men bearing torches appears in the distance. It's a funeral cortege, bearing Elisabeth's body. Tannhäuser approaches and falls over her, then dies in the midst of a prayer. As sounds of far-off singing grow louder and louder, the chorus of Pilgrims appears again, with miraculous news: The Pope's staff has burst into flowers and green leaves, and Tannhäuser's soul is redeemed.