The three-part overture is a didactic vision of the main
conflict of the opera—the opposition of pure Christian love and
sinful, sensual love. The solemn chorus of the pilgrims is followed
by sounds of revelry in the Venusberg, after which the chorus
Tannhäuser, the once-famous minstrel who has for more than a
year been living in timeless love in the Venusberg, the magical
mountain abode of Venus, suddenly becomes disgusted by his life. He
is lured back to the real world, and while he half-heartedly
praises the goddess of beauty, he longs for the world of people,
earthly landscapes, and freedom. The goddess tries to make him
stay, but wounded in her pride, she curses Tannhäuser’s hopes of
salvation, and lets him go.
Tannhäuser calls on the Virgin Mary and the
Venusberg vanishes. He finds himself in a sunny valley near the
castle of the Wartburg. A shepherd plays his pipe and sings of the
pagan goddess Holda and sweet spring. Some passing pilgrims inspire
Tannhäuser to laud the wonders of God and repent his
Before he moves on, the sound of horns echo through
the valley, announcing the Landgrave Hermann and his knights. They
recognize their long-lost comrade and invite Tannhäuser to join
them after his long absence. Tannhäuser, who has set his mind on
doing penance for his sins, cannot be swayed until Wolfram von
Eschenbach reminds him that in the past his singing won the love of
Elisabeth, the landgrave’s beautiful niece. On hearing her name,
Tannhäuser gives up his plan and joins his companions. Memories and
the news that Elisabeth has for all this time been waiting for him
persuade him to stay.
In the ancient Hall of Song in the Wartburg, where the minstrel
contests were held, Elisabeth remembers and awaits her long-lost
Wolfram reunites the happy pair, Tannhäuser throws
himself before Elisabeth’s feet. He gives elusive answers to
Elisabeth’s questions about where he was and why he only returned
now. In her bliss Elisabeth confesses that Tannhäuser’s songs
kindled love in her heart, and her confession is met with response.
Together they celebrate their joint future and the happy
continuation of their past.
The Landgrave is glad to hear that Elisabeth has
agreed to present the prises at the minstrel contest, but does not
ask her what made her change her mind.
The guests enter the Hall of Song and are followed
by the contestants. The landgrave greets them and announces the
theme of the contest: revealing the essence of love. Wolfram
begins. He sings of the pureness of love, the unspoiled source of
joy—which is an idealized tribute to Elisabeth, whom he too has
loved. Tannhäuser, his soul still possessed by Venus, counters with
a frenzied hymn to the pleasures of worldly love. His song is
followed by a shocked silence, and the knights side with Wolfram.
Their argument has just got out of hand when, to make things worse,
Tannhäuser sings of Venus and her ecstatic love, causing a general
uproar. The appalled guests flee from the presence of the
Tannhäuser who has mortally sinned, and the knights draw their
swords. Elisabeth protects the minstrel’s life. Although she may be
the person most offended by Tannhäuser’s song, she pleas for mercy.
Moved, the knights accept the sinner’s right to do penance. The
Landgrave commands Tannhäuser to make a pilgrimage to Rome to seek
Wolfram and Elisabeth, lost in her prayers, await the return of
the pilgrims before a shrine in the Wartburg valley. Elisabeth
searches among approaching pilgrims for Tannhäuser, but in vain.
Broken, she prays to the Virgin to receive her and Tannhäuser’s
soul in heaven.
Wolfram, alone, sings to the evening star, worrying
about Elisabeth’s fate.
Alone and dressed in a tattered pilgrim’s dress,
Tannhäuser now staggers in wearily. He refuses to answer Wolfram’s
questions and seeks the way to the Venusberg. He changes his mind
and relates that despite his abject penitence, the Pope decreed
that so grave was his sin that he could not be forgiven unless the
papal staff broke into flower. The sinner has no other alternative
than to return to sin. The Venusberg opens and the goddess
ecstatically awaits her lost lover. Tannhäuser rests by her side,
but he is reminded again by Wolfram of Elisabeth. The Venusberg
vanishes and a funeral procession now winds down the valley from
the castle. The pure virgin has redeemed the sinner with her death.
Tannhäuser collapses, dying, by her bier. A chorus of pilgrims
enters, recounting a miracle: the Pope’s staff, which they bear
forward, has blossomed.