The online opera guide to TANNHÄUSER
Tannhäuser is probably the most human hero among all the figures created by Wagner, who cannot escape the carnal lust (Venus), although he strives for spirituality (Elisabeth). Wagner himself has described that his “inclination to sensual impetuosity” is in conflict with the “seriousness of artistic feeling”.
OVERVIEW & QUICK ACCESS
♪ Act I (Venusberg)
♪ Act II (Singer contest)
♪ Act III (Pilgrim scene, Death scene)
♪ Dich teure Halle (Hall aria)
♪ Gepriesen sei (love duet)
♪ Heraus zum Kampfe (singer contest)
♪ Beglückt, darf nun dich, o Heimat, ich schauen (Pilgrim’s choir)
♪ Inbrunst in meinem Herzen (Roman Tale)
ROLES & SYNOPSIS OF TANNHÄUSER IN 4 MINUTES
Richard Wagner, based on the collection of poems from the Singer's War at Wartburg Castle and the Tannhäuser Song.
THE MAIN ROLES
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia (bass) - Elisabeth, niece of the Landgrave (soprano) - Wolfram, knight and minnesinger (baritone) - Venus, goddess of love (soprano) - Tannhäuser, knight and minnesinger (tenor)
DECCA, René Kollo, Helga Dernesch, Christa Ludwig, Victor Braun conducted by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera Chorus.
Wagner’s motifs should not yet be called “leitmotifs” in the formal sense, still they have the role of motifs of remembrance. In the section on the overture, we present three of the most important themes of this opera. Two themes dominate the overture and address the dominant antagonism: that of faith and desire.
History and Libretto
Wagner began his work on Tannhäuser at the age of twenty-nine. The libretto was completed the following year and the score was completed in 1845.
The opera bears the double title “Tannhäuser and the Minnesingers’ Contest at Wartburg”, which reflects the fact that Wagner drew the plot of the opera mainly from two sources. On the one hand it is the collection of poems of the “Sängerkrieg auf der Wartburg” (in which the two most famous minstrels Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide are said to have taken part) and on the other hand the Tannhäuserlied about a minstrel with an unsteady way of life. Wagner now combined an invented love story of Tannhäuser and his pilgrimage to the pope with the singer’s contest at the castle of the Thuringian landgrave. The Heinrich of the singer’s contest became the Tannhäuser.
With the Tannhäuser we encounter a similar constellation as in the Meistersinger: An outsider wants to change the traditional rules of art and fails due to the inertia of society. Tannhäuser and Stolzing are brothers in spirit with the difference that the latter wins the bride and Tannhäuser does not. Tannhäuser in unlucky in this opera, he is cursed three times, first by the Thuringian court, then by the singers’ guild and finally even by the pope. Hail is at least approaching through Elisabeth, for she in turn is a sister in the spirit of the Senta and sacrifices herself for her beloved Tannhäuser. The theme of the woman’s sacrifice and the artist’s redemption runs like a red thread through Wagner’s life.
Tannhäuser is about the struggle between this world and the world beyond, or on another level expressed: between faith, whose representative on earth is the pope, and lust, whose representative on earth is Venus. These two aims in life are incompatible and that is why their struggle rages within the human being.
Related to Wagner’s reality of life: As an artist, he cannot allow himself to be restricted by one world or another. He needs the spirituality of love and faith, but he cannot accept the norming of society by the church. He becomes misunderstood, and this struggle is the reason why he perishes.
On the way to the “music drama”
Tannhäuser is an important milestone on Wagner’s path to musical drama. For the first time, there are no more numbers in the score. Entire scenes, such as the singing competition, are through-composed.
But much is still rooted in the old. Wagner does not want to do without the aria altogether, Elisabeth has two classical arias and Wolfram gets the famous Abendstern. The Paris Grand Opera also sends out fierce greetings with its mass scenes and concertos of the endings of acts. And (some people thank him for this) Wagner does without excessive dialogues and monologues.
The difficult tenor role
Tannhäuser is considered the most exhausting tenor role in opera literature. Wagner called it “the most difficult of my dramatic singing tasks”. Just as Bellini had the tenor Battista Rubini in his ear when composing the Puritani, Wagner had Tikhachek in his ear when composing Tannhäuser. The part of Tannhäuser is considered a “killer” among the tenor parts of the repertoire. In the section on the passage “Stets soll nur dir, nur dir mein Lied ertönen” of the murderous first act, we see why.
But Wagner, too, had to admit that the role itself harmed the robust Tikhachek. Twenty years later Wagner heard the tenor Ludwig Schnorr von Caroldsfeld in this role and he confessed that Schnorr opened his eyes for his own work. His early death in connection with another opera of Wagner’s (Tristan und Isolde) later became a legend.
World premiere and review
Wagner had been Hofkapellmeister in Dresden since 1842 and was thus already able to premiere Rienzi (with enormous success) and the Dutchman (with moderate success) with the renowned and top-class theater orchestra, with which Wagner was able to draw from his full compositional potential and create the magnificent orchestral movements of these operas. A top-class singing troupe was also available for the occasion. The aforementioned Tikhatschek was engaged as Tannhäuser and as Elisabeth Wagner’s niece Johanna. The role of Venus was sung by the great Schröder-Devrient, whose Fidelio a dozen years earlier gave the sixteen-year-old Wagner his operatic awakening. Devrient was not an outstanding singer, but an incredibly charismatic actress, who even the almost completely deaf Beethoven is said to have been enthusiastic about.
The success of Dresden’s Tannhäuser of 1845 was moderate, but already the second production by Liszt in Weimar brought the breakthrough. It became Wagner’s most popular opera for a long time and was performed for the first time in the United States in 1859.
The theater scandal in Paris
Wagner’s lifelong dream was to be successful in Paris, it was almost obsessive how he sought recognition in the European capital of opera. No less than ten times he stayed in Paris for a long time. In order to promote the acquaintance of his works, Wagner conducted three concerts with excerpts from various operas at the beginning of 1860, among the audience were all the musical celebrities of the time, such as Berlioz, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Auber and Gounod. The echo was extraordinary and Wagner, with the help of the wife of the Austrian ambassador, succeeded in getting Napoleon III to order the performance of Tannhäuser the following year.
What happened in 1861 went down in the annals of opera history. Wagner adapted the work to the customs of the Grand Opéra. Among other things, the Bachanale of the first movement was expanded with a ballet and a French-language libretto was created. Wagner took 164 rehearsals to prepare the musical staff, some of whom were overtaxed. The Jockey Club, a larger group of dandies, sabotaged the performances because they were used to appear only in the second act when their mistresses were performing the usual ballet. In protest that Wagner was performing the ballet in the first act, they unpacked whistles and interrupted with interjections. Deeply hurt and deeply in debt, Wagner ended the Parisian adventure after three performances.
The different versions
There are four different versions of the Tannhäuser (in the order of appearance: original version, version for Weimar, version for Paris, version for Bayreuth), the creation of which took over thirty years. Tannhäuser remained a life’s work and three weeks before his death Wagner told Cosima that he still owed the Tannhäuser to the world…
TANNHÄUSER ACT I
The great Overture
The overture begins with the famous pilgrim’s choir motif that turns into a flickering of violins that paints the voluptuous Venusberg. The overture is a great piece that has rightly become famous. You hear it in the great, fiery version by Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Ouverture – Furtwängler
The theatre scandal of Paris
The premiere of the work took place in 1845 under the direction of the composer. Four years later, after a revision, Franz Liszt’s production in Weimar marked his breakthrough in Germany. Another 12 years later Wagner reworked the Tannhäuser once again to achieve the long-awaited breakthrough in Paris. He even made compromises and added an obligatory ballet. What then happened is legend: This did not suit the Jockey Club, a collection of snobbish young men. They were friends of the ballet (or rather the ballerinas) and used to dine with them on the evening of the performance and did not appear in the theatre until around 10 pm. Wagner had “the impudence” to put the ballet at the beginning of the opera. They saw this practice as a showdown and sabotaged the performance with wild whistling. The opera failed, and Wagner, who was inundated with debts, was devastated.
The Venusberg scene
Synopsis: Heinrich, called Tannhäuser, lives as Venus’ lover inside the Venusberg. He had once left the court of the Landgrave of Thuringia as a minstrel after an differences with his fellow knights. Now he is tired of the life of free love in the Venusberg. Venus asks him to sing for her. In his singing he praises the divine Venus, but nevertheless he has to leave her, he is drawn to the people.
Already Tannhäusers first aria is a tour de force, Tannhäuser has to sing a very high-pitched part and constantly climb to A and G.
Dir töne Lob – Melchior
Synopsis: Venus can’t believe her ears and tries to hold him back.
We hear a vocally colourful and lush Venus from Christa Ludwig.
Geliebter, Komm! Sieh dort die Grotte! – Ludwig
Synopsis: But Tannhäuser’s decision is made.
Why is the role of Tannhäuser considered so difficult? This passage shows why. The role is set relatively high, this is not only true for this scene, but for the whole opera. Wide passages are written in the passagio (transition area) , which is very unpleasant for the tenor. And all the time the voice has to fight against a loud orchestra. And because Tannhäuser is a combative person, the singer must constantly exert himself to bring out the emotionality of this role.
Peter Seiffert was an outstanding Tannhäuser. Since the 80s he has been one of the most sought-after Wagner tenors. His voice has the dramatic power but also a great singing quality.
Stets soll nur dir, nur dir mein Lied ertönen – Seiffert
Synopsis: Venus mocks him, that he is going to find his way to her again. With a terrible blow the Venusberg sinks. Tannhäuser stands in a green valley with the Wartburg castle visible on the hillside. A shepherd boy plays on a shawm.
With the wonderfully simple music of the shepherd boy Wagner creates a maximum contrast to the baccant world of Venus. A true coup de théâtre!
Frau Holda kam aus dem Berg hervor
Synopsis: Pilgrims pass by on their pilgrimage to Rome, Tannhäuser sinks to his knees.
Zu Dir wall ich mein Jesus Christ
Synopsis: The Landgrave of Thuringia and his minstrels, returning from the hunt, are amazed seeing Tannhäuser and warmly greet him. Tannhäuser does not want any argument and asks them to move on. But when Wolfram mentions the name of Elisabeth and suggests that she still thinks of Tannhäuser, Tannhäuser knows what drew him from the Venusian Empire. Everybody welcomes Tannhäuser in their circle.
Wagner still used Italian music technique in Tannhäuser. In order to compose the most effective closing act possible, he composed a typical concertato, which leads into an effective stretta.
This ensemble scene (concertato) is of great beauty.
Als du in kühnen Sange uns bestrittest – Gudbjörnsson / Seiffert / René Pape / Hampson
TANNHÄUSER ACT II
The hall aria – Elisabeth awaits excited Tannhäuser
Synopsis: Wartburg Castle. Elisabeth, the niece of the landgrave, is happy about the return of Tannhäuser. She is in the hall which she has not entered since Tannhäuser had left.
This aria is also known as the “hall aria”. Formally, it stands on the middle ground between the Grand Opéra and musical drama. Thus, Tannhäuser still has various self-contained, effective musical pieces such as the hall aria. Vibrating horns create an electrified atmosphere. Elisabeth has every reason to be excited. Joyfully excited, Elisabeth begins the aria. At the thought of Tannhäuser’s departure, the music changes to gloom. An oboe brings Elisabeth back into the jubilant mood of the beginning. With a repeated increase of the “sei mir gegrüsst” (“I greet thee”) in pitch and tone strength Wagner leads Elisabeth to a climactic D.
We hear this aria first in the interpretation by Elisabeth Grümmer. Grümmer was a singer who had soul in her voice. The German music critic Joachim Kaiser wrote about her recording: How Elisabeth Grümmer sings Elisabeth with heart-moving intimacy, completely un-kitsched but so tenderly glowing, that one can speak of an ideal cast.
Dich teure Halle – Grümmer
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was not a heroic soprano, but a lyrical soprano. This benefits this aria. Her interpretation is lyrically radiant, at times almost dreamy.
Dich teure Halle – Schwarzkopf
The love duet
Synopsis: Wolfram, who secretly loves Elisabeth, brings Tannhäuser to her. When asked where he had been, Tannhäuser answers evasively that a miracle had brought him here. Elisabeth praises the miracle and confesses that she has feelings for him. Tannhäuser shows her his affection and both praise the miracle that has brought them together again.
Gepriesen sei – Domingo / Studer
The festive entry of the guests
Synopsis: This evening, the Landgrave has called for Tannhäuser’s honours in the singing contest, where Tannhäuser and others can compete for the heart of Elisabeth. The guests arrive.
Wagner created the story for the libretto from two different sources, one is a legend about the Wartburg singer’s war from the 13th century and the other is the so-called Tannhäuserlied, which describes the pilgrimage to the Pope and the miracle of the pilgrims’ staff.
The entry of the guests is a grandiose, solemn piece of music in a beautiful staging of the Naples Opera.
Schon nahen sich die Edlen meines Landes – Opera di Napoli
The hot singer war
Synopsis: The Landgrave welcomes the guests in the hall and presents “the essence of love” as the theme of the competition. The winner may claim the prize of his choice from Elisabeth. Wolfram is the first singer. He describes love as the source of spiritual bliss. Tannhäuser is next. In an aggressive tone he insults Wolfram and describes love as a source of sensual pleasure.
O Wolfram, der du also sangest
Synopsis: A dramatic singing war unfolds in the aftermath. Biterolf intervenes and the landgrave has to stop him from drawing his sword. Wolfram’s song temporarily calms the situation. But Tannhäuser continues to pour oil into the water.
Heraus zum Kampfe….
Synopsis: And finally, Tannhäuser’s emotions burn through and he sings his price song on Venus.
Tannhäuser is a rebel and does not want to bow to the courtly constraints and moral codes. Thus he remains the homeless outsider.
Dir, Göttin der Liebe soll mein Lied ertönen – Domingo
Elisabeth saves Tannhäuser
Synopsis: Excitement trembles through the hall, the men want to attack Tannhäuser with the swords. Elisabeth, most struck by the words, throws herself in between with the words “Back, what is the wound dealt by your swords, to the death blow I received from him”, asking for his salvation. The guests are deeply moved.
Elisabeth saves Tannhäuser. A beautiful ensemble piece unfolds (from 5:25) showing “An angel has descended from the shimmering firmament.”
Zurück von ihm – Studer
Synopsis: Tannhäuser recognizes his foolish act and the landgrave orders Tannhäuser to join the pilgrims on their way to Rome to ask forgiveness for his actions.
A grand finale with the soloists plus pilgrim choir.
Mit ihnen sollst Du wallen – Sinopoli / Domingo / Studer et al.
TANNHÄUSER ACT III
Tannhäuser’s pilgrimage is portrayed in a dark foreplay. With this work Wagner’s orchestra has gained in colour and expressiveness. It increasingly takes on a dramatic role.
Prelude – Klemperer
Synopsis: Wearily, Wolfram observes the praying Elisabeth, whose only purpose in life is to wait for Tannhäuser’s return, ready to give her life for Tannhäuser’s salvation.
Here we find another life theme of Wagner. The death of the woman for the man’s salvation. What is can be said for the Holländer can also be stated for the Tannhäuser: “Four topoi, which also dominate Wagner’s further work, form the cornerstones of the synopsis in the flying Dutchman: the yearning for death, the woman’s willingness to make sacrifices, the death of love, and redemption. (Holland/Csampai)”
The famous pilgrim choir
Synopsis: Suddenly the choir of pilgrims is being heard.
Beglückt, darf nun dich, o Heimat, ich schauen
Synopsis: But to Elisabeth’s despair, Tannhäuser is not among them.
Allmächtige Jungfrau – Norman
Synopsis: Wolfram senses a presentiment of death in the words of Elisabeth and says goodbye to her.
Wolfram plays an unusual role by Wagner’s standards. The baritone gets an almost Italian melody (Bellini sends his greetings). Throughout the opera the tenor is denied such a beautiful melody as this!
This aria begins with the dark minor of the presentiment of Elisabeth’s death. With a beautiful flute passage Wagner introduces the ethereal middle part, the vision of the evening star. Accompanied by the shimmering tremolo of the strings we hear an enraptured singing, which leads into the main theme, that creates a dreamy mood in a swaying 6/8 time. This beautiful piece ends with the repetition of the theme in the cellos.
Bryn Terfel is a singer with an amazing breadth of repertoire. We hear an intimate, songlike interpretation.
O du mein holder Abendstern – Terfel
Tannhäuser’s Roman Tale
Synopsis: Wolfram meets the exhausted Tannhäuser, who looks for the way to the Venusberg. He tells Wolfram about his trip to Rome. Although he surpassed everyone by repentance, he found no forgiveness from the Pope, whose words were: just as the pilgrim staff will no longer bedecked with green, so your salvation rests impossible for me.
Tannhäuser stands most of the time on stage . Now towards the end the tenor faces the great “pièce de résistance”, the 10-minute-long Roman Tale, in which the tenor has to mobilize the last reserves of strength.
Lauritz Melchior was possibly the greatest Wagner tenor of all time. The “great Dane”, as Cosima called him, was an elemental force. He claimed of himself that he could easily sing Tristan 2 times in the evening. He was a master of expression with pathos, so Roman Tale was masterful.
Inbrunst im Herzen (1) – Lauritz Melchior
We hear a gripping version from Jonas Kaufmann.
Inbrunst im Herzen (2) – Kaufmann
Synopsis: That’s why Tannhäuser wants to go back to Venus. She appears.
Once again the orchestra plays the flickering, sensually excited music of Venusberg.
We hear Kirsten Flagstadt, Melchior’s congenial partner of many Wagner evenings and recordings.
Dich ungetreuer Mann – Flagstadt
Synopsis: But Wolfram banishes her spell by the name of Elisabeth, who is carried in dead on a stretcher. Tannhäuser sinks dying over her. Pilgrims bring the pilgrim staff from which fresh buds sprout. All praise the sign of divine grace.
God is greater than his deputy on earth. Wagner ends his masterpiece with a grand finale.
Dich ungetreuer Mann – Kollo, Dernesch, Weikl, Ludwig
There is no clear favourite recording. To name some I would consider the records of Solti (DECCA), Konwitschny (EMI) or Sinopoli (DG).
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide to TANNHÄUSER by Richard Wagner