Tannhäuser: Wagner's "problem" opera Tannhäuser, a Synopsis
Briefly, the argument, brewed of Wagner's usual conflation of various legends, with a soupçon of fact, and set in 12th-century Thuringia:
Tannhäuser is a Minnesinger, a composite of two historical figures: the ne'er-do-well minnesinging Tannhäuser, who lived somewhat later and was for centuries the subject of cautionary lays; and Heinrich von Ofterdingen (Wagner retains "Heinrich" as Tannhäuser's Christian name), whose travels and trafficking with the almost certainly legendary magician Klingsor led him to a cave of timeless delights not unlike that of the opera's bower beneath the Hörsel(Venus)berg.
The poet has spent a dreamlike time in the arms of none other than Venus, the goddess of love, whom he has won over with his song. Longing for simpler, more mortal pleasures, he leaves the pleading goddess to find himself instantly transported to the Thuringian woods, where he watches a group of elderly pilgrims on their way to Rome. Their holy demeanor casts in tawdry light his sinful sojourn with Venus, and, vowing repentance, he is about to join them on their pilgrimage when his old compatriots, the Minnesingers, with their patron the Landgraf Hermann, appear. They beg him to rejoin their troupe, but he agrees only when his erstwhile closest friend, Wolfram von Eschenbach (whose historical counterpart was later to write the epic poem Parzifal), implores him to return for the sake of Elisabeth, Hermann's niece, whose heart Tannhäuser had evidently stolen and taken with him when he escaped to the Venusberg.
Act II takes place in the Landgraf's Singer's Hall, atop the Wartburg, where Elisabeth, flushed with excitement, appears for the first time since Tannhäuser's departure for delights Venusian. The Minnesinger and Wolfram soon arrive, and while the latter stands in the shadows, Elisabeth shyly, gently remonstrates Tannhäuser for captivating her with his art, then leaving. Tannhäuser begs her forgiveness, which she grants, after which he leaves joyfully with Wolfram. Hermann, and soon the entire court, enter for the Song Contest, the prize to be named by the winner and granted by Elisabeth.
From Hermann's brief interview with Elisabeth, it seems a forgone conclusion that Tannhäuser will win, and ask as prize, her hand in marriage. Wolfram and Walther von der Vogelweide sing chaste songs to idealized love, but Tannhäuser sings a lusty, sensual ode to carpe diem that shocks all but Elisabeth at first, and finally even her. Tannhäuser is about to be killed by the outraged Minnesingers when Elisabeth shouts them back, demanding to know who they are to judge him. She pleads for his life, if he willingly seeks atonement. Chastened and ashamed, Tannhäuser leaves for Rome with a group of young pilgrims.
Act III opens in the valley below the Wartburg. Elisabeth, in poor health, has given over her life to God since Tannhäuser's departure for Rome; she is discovered at prayer before a shrine to the Virgin. Wolfram descends from the mountain, gently musing and strumming, and soon Act I's elderly pilgrims return from Rome. Elisabeth searches their ranks for Tannhäuser, but he is not among them; dejected but still praying for his salvation, she returns to the Wartburg. Then Tannhäuser does appear, alone, weak, and so disheveled that Wolfram at first does not recognize him.
In the long Rome Narration, Tannhäuser tells the story of how he did, indeed, pilgrimage to Rome, missing no opportunity on the way to mortify his flesh and spirit, only to be refused absolution by the Pope himself (Innocent III or Urvan IV, depending on which legend you accept as "the" source), who has bitterly proclaimed that the staff in his hand will sprout leaves before Tannhäuser can be pardoned. In mounting hysteria and delirium, Tannhäuser conjures up Venus to rescue him from worldly woes, at least until Judgment Day, and is about to rush into her arms when Wolfram once again intones the name of Elisabeth, who has just that moment commended her spirit to God.
The apparition of Venus evaporates, Elisabeth's body is brought down from the Wartburg, and Tannhäuser, pleading that she pray for him as he kneels by her bier, dies, as a group of young pilgrims arrive bearing the Pope's sprouting staff: Tannhäuser is pardoned after all, his soul saved at last.—Richard Lehnert