Opera Profile: Wagner’s ‘Tannhaüser’

By Logan Martell

Wagner’s ‘Tannhaüser’ is an opera that combines elements of Romantic-era storytelling with those of French grand opera. Premiering on October 19, 1845, the story grapples with the theme of lust versus love, and centers on the experiences of a knight/bard minnesinger named Tannhaüser. Shortly after its premiere, Wagner made a number of changes; after adding vocal selection and clarifying the ending in what is referred to as the Dresden version, he again made significant changes when Napoleon III requested it for a performance at the Paris Opera, among which is the ballet found in act I.

Though it has become a staple in the operatic repertoire of the present-day, Wagner went to his grave unsatisfied with his work, intent on making more revisions to give audiences the version of “Tannhaüser” that he knew it could be.

Short Plot Summary:

The opera begins in Venusberg, the grotto of the love-goddess Venus, where naiads, sirens, nymphs and human couples all revel by blue pools under the glow of rosy light. Tannhaüser himself rests his head in the lap of Venus shortly before an orgiastic ballet ensues. While captivated by his love for Venus, Tannha¨¨ser takes up his harp and after singing praise unto her, implores for his release back into the world of humans. While Venus soon becomes angered, after Tannhaüser proclaims that his salvation is with the Virgin Mary, he suddenly finds himself in an idyllic valley. Once more among mankind, Tannhaüser is met by a hunting party of minnesingers, of which he was once a member of their company. At first he does little to answer their questions as to his whereabouts, and shows no desire to rejoin them, he quickly reconsiders when he hears mention of Elizabeth, the Landgave’s niece who was smitten with Tannhaüser and turned away from music after his disappearance.

After a joyful reunion and duet between Tannhaüser and Elizabeth, the Landgrave informs his niece of the upcoming singing contest, of which she will serve as judge. On the day of the contest, the theme and prize are announced: whoever can best sing of the nature of love will win whatever they desire from Elizabeth. The first contestant and fellow minnesinger, Wolfram, sings a song of courtly love but is mocked by Tannhaüser for his lack of passion. When this happens one more with the next minnesinger, they draw their swords on Tannhaüser and a fight nearly erupts. When it comes time for Tannhaüser to sing, his rapturous song dedicated to Venus leaves many horrified when they realize he has been to the forbidden Venusberg. Tannhaüser is spared from execution by the pleas of Elizabeth, and so he is to be exiled with a younger band of minnesingers who are departing on a pilgrimage towards Rome.

After some time, Wolfram and Elizabeth hear of an approaching procession, but she fears the worst when she cannot find Tannhaüser among their number. She returns dejectedly to the Wartburg, leaving Wolfram to sing a hymn to the evening star. That night, Tannhaüser arrives, weathered and weary. While Wolfram at first tries to mete out justice on the exiled minnesinger, he becomes filled with grave worry when Tannhaüser makes known his intention to return to Venus. On his pilgrimage to Rome, all other minnesingers are absolved of their prior sins, except for Tannhaüser who is declared cursed, shattering his hope for absolution. Crying out for Venus once more, the goddess arrives to beckon her lost singers back. Nothing can assuage Tannhaüser until Wolfram calls out the name Elizabeth, freezing him in his tracks as a funeral procession approaches. Wolfram realizes the body being carried is Elizabeth’s who has sacrificed herself for Tannhaüser, causing Venus to vanish again. As Tannhaüser cries over Elizabeth’s body, he dies as well; a group of young minnesingers arrive, bearing a priest’s staff that has flowered, symbolizing that Tannhaüser, no longer damned, is now with his beloved in heaven.

Famous Musical Numbers

The opera has a ton of famous musical numbers starting with the opening overture, which in traditional manner lays out the major themes of the opera. That is followed by the Venusberg scene, which includes the ballet of the opera.

Elisabeth’s famed aria kicks off the second act and that is followed by the march of the guests. The third act includes some of the opera’s most famous moments, including Wolfram’s aria, Tannhaüser’s narration and, finally, the chorus of the pilgrims, arguably the opera’s most famous moments.

Watch and Listen

Here is a production from Teatro la Fenice.


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