Tannhäuser or Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf die Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest on the Wartburg) is an opera in three acts, music and text by Richard Wagner, based on the two Germanic legends of Tannhäuser and the song contest at Wartburg. Key themes are the struggle between sacred and profane love, and redemption through love (a theme running through almost all Wagner's mature work).
Wagner conducted the premier in Dresden in 1845 with Johanna Wagner (Wagner's niece) as Elisabeth. The revised 'Paris Version' is more frequently performed today.
The Paris Version
Wagner revised the opera for an 1861 performance in Paris, produced thanks to Austrian princess Pauline de Metternich, (now called 'the Paris version').
Changes from the original Dresden Version
Wagner's omission of the ballet during Act II was considered cause for scandal in the Paris Opera House, a primary reason why a separate Paris Version was created.
Major Paris Version changes include:
The opera takes place near Eisenach in the early thirteenth century.
The Venusberg (the Hörselberg of "Frau Holda" in Thüringia, in the vicinity of Eisenach.) Tannhäuser is held there a willing captive through his love for Venus. The goddess has won the dreaming Tannhäuser by her fascinations. His head is pillowed in her lap. (Ballet scene; bacchanalian music.) Tannhäuser's desires are satiated, and he longs for freedom, spring and the sound of church bells. Once again he grasps his harp and pays homage to the goddess in a passionate song of love, which he ends with an earnest plea to be allowed to depart. When Venus again tries to charm him he declares: "My salvation rests in Mary, the mother of God." These words break the unholy spell. Venus and her attendants disappear, and he suddenly finds himself just below the Wartburg. It is springtime; a young shepherd sits upon a rock and pipes an ode to spring; pilgrims in procession pass Tannhäuser as he stands motionless, and he sinks to his knees, overcome with gratitude. Thus he is found by the landgrave and his companions in the chase, Wolfram, Walter, Biterolf, Reimar and Heinrich. They joyfully welcome the sorely missed singer, who has fled from them because he was unsuccessful in the prize singing. He refuses to join them, but when Wolfram informs him that his song had gained for him the heart of Elizabeth, he follows the landgrave and the singers to the Wartburg.
Hall of the Wartburg. Elizabeth has been living retired from the world since Tannhäuser's disappearance. When she hears of his return she joyfully agrees to be present at a prize contest of song, and enters the hall. Wolfram leads Tannhäuser to her; he loves her, but dares not tell her the evil he has done. The landgrave and Elizabeth receive the guests who assemble for the contest, the noblemen of the neighbourhood, who appear in rich attire. (March and chorus.) The landgrave announces the subject of the day to be "Love's Awakening." Elizabeth is to grant a wish to the victor whatever it may be. Wolfram begins; he declares that love is like a pure stream, which should never be troubled. Tannhäuser replies hotly that he finds the highest love only in the pleasure of the senses. The other singers uphold Wolfram. Tannhäuser replies to each separately, and at last in growing excitement he answers Wolfram with a love song to Venus, and declares that if the knights wish to know love as it is they should repair to the Venusberg. The women, with the exception of Elizabeth, leave the hall in horror, and the knights draw swords upon Tannhäuser. Elizabeth protects him, and since he expresses his penitence, the landgrave allows him to join a band of pilgrims bound for Rome, where he may perhaps obtain forgiveness from the pope.
The valley of the Wartburg. An autumn scene. Orchestral music describes the pilgrimage of Tannhäuser. Elizabeth, accompanied by Wolfram, falls on her knees in prayer. She asks the returning pilgrims for news of Tannhäuser, but in vain. Once again she prays earnestly and returns broken-hearted to the Wartburg. Wolfram, who loves her with faithful devotion, has a presentiment of her death. (Wolfram: "Song to the evening star.") He sees before him a tottering pilgrim in torn garments. It is Tannhäuser, who in despair is seeking the path to the Venusberg. The pope has not forgiven him, but has said that his forgiveness would be as impossible as the staff in Tannhäuser's hand to sprout green leaves. Tannhäuser calls for Venus, who appears and bids him welcome to her cavern. Wolfram points upward to a funeral procession, which now slowly descends the hill, carrying on a bier the corpse of Elizabeth. Tannhäuser throws himself upon the body, and collapses with the words, "Holy Elizabeth, pray for me" upon his lips. The younger pilgrims enter and announce that the staff of Tannhäuser, which the pope had ordered to be erected as a token of his damnation, had sprouted with young leaves in sign of the forgiveness of God.
There are many recordings of Tannhäuser, some of the most popular being listed below: