Major Operas | Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner | High Romantic

The full title of this opera in three acts is Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (‘Tannhäuser and the Song Contest on the Wartburg’). Wagner, who took nearly three years to write the opera, conducted the first performance at the Dresden Hofoper on 19 October 1845.

This was the first of two Wagner operas in which a song contest played a part in the action: the other was Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The finale of Tannhäuser showed clear traces of the Italian influence that informed his early work.

Before Tannhäuser could be performed at the Paris Opéra on 13 March 1861, Wagner’s libretto had to be translated into French in accordance with the opera house rules. The French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–67) raved about Tannhäuser, citing the ‘rare joy’ it had given him, with its ‘vast horizons’, ‘diffused light’ and ‘passionate energy of expression’. ‘No musician,’ Baudelaire concluded, ‘excels as Wagner does in depicting space and depth, material and spiritual.’ The 1867 Munich production featured spectacular scenery, including dancers playing the Three Graces and cupids who rained down love-arrows in order to defuse a riot. Wagner made many revisions to the score of Tannhäuser but was never entirely satisfied.

Composed: 1843–45; rev. 1847–52; after 1861
Premiered: 1845, Dresden
Libretto by the composer

Act I

In the Venusberg, nymphs and sirens take part in an orgy. Tannhäuser, rising from the lap of Venus, hopes for release from the artificial pleasures of the Venusberg. He longs to return to the simplicity of the outside world, with the earthly pleasures and pains that it brings. Venus chides him and tempts him with promises of endless joy, but Tannhäuser returns each time to his need for freedom and begs to leave her; she curses him. Invoking the Virgin Mary, Tannhäuser escapes Venus’ spell.

He finds himself in a valley close to the castle of the Wartburg, where a shepherd sings of the joys of spring. A procession of pilgrims passes by, on its way to Rome, and Tannhäuser falls to his knees in prayer. He is found by the Landgrave and some knights, who are surprised to recognize their old friend. Although suspicious at first, they greet him warmly, especially Wolfram. Tannhäuser refuses their invitations to join them, until Wolfram reminds him of Elisabeth, the Landgrave’s niece, who fell in love with Tannhäuser through their singing contests. He reveals that, since Tannhäuser’s departure, Elisabeth has become withdrawn. Tannhäuser agrees to join his companions.

Act II

Elisabeth has heard of Tannhäuser’s return and happily greets the hall where the singing contests took place. Wolfram enters with Tannhäuser and the couple are joyfully reunited, while Wolfram looks on sadly; he too loves Elisabeth. The Landgrave announces a song contest, with the theme of love. Suspecting that Elisabeth has fallen for Tannhäuser and assuming that he will be the winner, the Landgrave suggests that the victor should ask Elisabeth for whatever he desires. The nobles arrive to watch the contest.

Wolfram begins with...

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