Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser et le tournoi des chanteurs a la Wartburg (1861)

Opera Romantique en trois actes et quatre tableaux. Running Time: 2 hours 57 minutes.


Here it is! The opera the Jockey Club despised. I think the French script brings out the Grand Opera intentions Wagner had for this work far better than the German original. It isn’t the best production, but it is interesting to see the opera performed in this (authorized) manner.

SETTING: Thuringia, Germany, 13th century (but with guns!). Tannhauser has been shacking up with Venus (or is it Satan? see Comments section below) for a year but he is now getting tired of it all and so he meets up with his saintly virginal GFF Elizabeth and scandalizes the mortals with a song about sexy time with Venus. This prompts his redemptive pilgrimage to Rome, and everyone either dies or gets sucked in to Venus’ web of sexy lies.



ACT 1: (69 minutes)

0: The overture **. This is possibly the worst interpretation I have ever encountered, it is so much better than this! Jose Cura has to be drugged to get through all of this. Basically it is a preview of everything else in the opera in miniature starting with the leitmotifs of the Penitents, the Venusberg, and then Tannhauser’s theme only to return to Venusberg. A new theme, Elisabeth, appears and finally Tannhauser but then Venusberg before it all dies down and returns to Penitents with this it finishes most satisfactory.

Scene 1: Venusberg, the interior of a Mt. Horselberg in Central Germany, Thuringia specifically, because Venus decided to go north  for some reason?

14: The ballet ***, the most psychotic thing Wagner ever wrote. It is post-Tristan and probably his most chromatically insane piece. Also, I am not sure that this is the appropriate sequence. The overture appears to be that of Dresden as it is not connected to the ballet at all.

32: Finally someone other than the Three Virtues sings something, but it is just rather dull introductory recitative between the two until the first two verses of Tannhauser’s song ** (prompted by Venus).

36: Venus’ response * is more notable for its solo violin than anything else (it is also a tune we heard in the overture). The third verse of Tans song follows, and then Venus lets him have it and tells him to get lost. She then turns more docile as he threatens to leave her forever.

45: Venus becomes sorry, for herself, in a strange aria * that meanders about chromatically for three minutes before Tan invokes the name of the Virgin Mary (Venus’ nemesis seeing that she hasn’t been a virgin in over 6000 years). This causes Venus to vanish after over 50 minutes of this stuff (is this the longest Venusberg sequence ever?). Sheesh!

Scene 2: A Green Valley near the Wartburg.

53: Wagner doesn’t start the scene very well: we encounter one of the most boring songs in any opera (a cappella soprano shepherd with lute). Followed by one of the best numbers in the entire work: The Pilgrim’s Chorus **, a pseudo-medieval plain chant. Tan gets a good outing of it as well as the chorus starts to wonder off chromatically into nothingness.

58, 61, 64: The hunting horns: a catchy tune *, ushers in the arrival of Wolfram and four other Minisingers along with the Landgrave who are out blood sporting for some unknown reason prompting a nice ensemble * and 20 questions for Tannhauser. At first he tries to escape them but Wolfram mentions Elisabeth (Landgrave’s niece) and this stops Tan in his tracks. Wolfram provides some exposition in an aria *, most of it about Elisabeth. It turns into a brief ensemble before the key changes oddly and then they all go off together (Tan taking up the invite to attend the song contest), hunting horns.

ACT 2: The Great Hall, Wartburg. (59 minutes)

3: After a good prelude which consists of a catchy string melody and a series of woodwind solo parts, Elizabeth greets the Hall and embarks on an aria ** about how excited she is that Tan is back!

9, 13: The very long Elizabeth-Tannhauser duet heats up a little when some whirling strings get taken up by Tan and then Elizabeth embarks on a long arioso passage which is quite lovely **. Tannhauser races on and they embark on a bit of actual duetting * (this is probably the last time in Wagner that two people are singing at the exact same time, excluding the Meistersinger quintet). Elizabeth and the Landgrave engage in a dull conversation which thankfully only lasts about three minutes.

18: The Great March ***. Not a single tune but a trinity of good melodies when taken in together. Also basically dead centre in the middle of the opera. The chorus gets in on the act as the contest audience and participants come in.

26: The Landgrave’s address *, an oddly lyrical passage (although it is still recitative) as he explains the particulars about the contest.

31, 39: The Contest itself * is rather dull. Wolfram is the first chosen by lot to sing. A harp accompaniment helps, but not enough to raise it. Tan has a go at it which is better at least  but everyone hates it and Biterolf responds in one of the most boring songs in all opera (still applauded by this crowd because they are equally dull). Wolfram has another go (this time more love oriented but still so boring that Tan has to go into verse four of Venusberg music ** to save everything (at least musically, because it is an open confession of lascivious sexual activity with the Roman love monger). This effectively ends the Contest, as it all bogs down into arguments about sexual morality as a result of Tan’s exposure as Venus’ long-term partner.

41, 47: Elizabeth, virgin demigoddess that she is, is able to stand down ** all the men who crowd around to murder her randy boyfriend (all the other women have fled because they are obviously not virgins, so why are they so offended?). This commences the best section of the opera, not the most tuneful, but the most dramatically fulfilling. Tan has a brief outburst, prompting a rather magnificent choral sequence for all of the men ***. Elizabeth eventually comes in as well in a descant as Tannhauser takes over the melody (similar to Elizabeth’s prayer in the next act).

54: The Landgrave orders Tan on pilgrimage to Rome immediately. A sparky string accompaniment as this turns to arioso and leads on into the finale is worth mentioning *, the chorus eventually takes over and break into a “California here we come” ensemble which is stopped dead by the Pilgrims floating about in the valley. Tan has to go to Rome. So he goes.

ACT 3: The valley as in Act 1 Scene 2, but now snowy as it is wintertime now. (48.5 minutes)

0: The prelude * consists mostly of random chromatic chording surrounding the Penitents motif. Although not in any way great, it is rather effective filler music that is probably good to have on while writing something. The curtain goes up and we get Elizabeth motif before more woodwind work that just roams about like we are in Tristan. 

10: After Wolfram’s comments about Elizabeth at prayer (rather uninteresting) the return of the Pilgrim’s Chorus **. At first they are long far off but their chromatic meandering finally comes centre stage as Elizabeth frantically searches for Tannhauser (he isn’t among them). Dramatically, it all does feel a bit of a con.

14: Elizabeth implores the only woman with a more direct link to the Almighty than she does ** in a lovely prayer which has a strong vocal line but weak orchestral accompaniment (mostly chording in the woodwinds and horns). This is the first of three ariosos which follow one after another in succession, occupying most of the centre part of the act. Elizabeth apparently decides to commit suicide in this version (very weird because wouldn’t suicide counteract her whole redemption scheme for Tannhauser?). I don’t like this element, it isn’t part of the actual story and it adds nothing to it other than disturbance. The music doesn’t connect with it at all.

25: Wolfram’s “Oh Star of Eve(ning)” (seriously that is the “eve” not “Eve” he is talking about, idiots!). Not my favourite personally, but it is apparently very popular, it sounds about half-way to Schubert’s Ave Maria, and the tune would have probably been more appropriate for Elizabeth’s preceding prayer. A star from me *, but no more.

32: It also doesn’t last very long either, as Tannhauser returns from Rome at this point super exhausted. Ornery brass chords alert us to his condition. Wolfram confronts him and there are quite a few Venusberg references. Eventually a patch of tenor arioso The Narration *, occurs. This is essentially the Eric’s Dream or the Grail Monologue, but for this opera, a Wagnerian experiment in something between arioso and recitative, although it is almost nothing like more developed concepts in late Wagner operas. It starts off well as he talks about the trip to Rome, bogs down into boring recitative, but effective enough. For some reason Wagner decided to give these experiments over to his tenors rather than to any of the other vocal types, this may have been wise. Anyway, the Pope refuses to forgive Tan unless his staff sprouts out lilies (highly unlikely).

40: Venusberg references come in at this point as the odd 8 minute finale comes on with the return of Venus and her battle with Wolfram for Tannhauser’s soul *. She seems to want Wolfram now, but somehow he manages to release Tan from the wicked woman’s grasp by invoking the name of Elizabeth which works like Tan’s reference to the Nagyboldogasszony in the first act. This apparently causes Venus to flee like Dracula to light (or crucifixes) and she takes Wolfram with her.

44: The last thing of note is Elizabeth’s funerary cortège. Tan begs her to pray for him. It gets better as the women come on to announce what is apparently Elizabeth’s first miracle: the Pope’s staff has sprouted lilies, thus Tannhauser has been forgiven, but it is bittersweet because now they are going to kill him because this production couldn’t take more liberties with the plot with regards to all four of the many characters! It is all so dramatically ridiculous, but musically it really works and if I end up crying over less than four minutes of music, it is getting ***.


Before listening to this production, I never noticed how clunky Tannhauser was. Don’t get me wrong, it has some great moments: the overture and Venusberg ballet, the Great March, the ends of acts 2 and 3, but with that comes a lot of, well, boring stuff. On the other hand, this is probably the closest thing Wagner ever came to Meyerbeerian Grand Opera (Rienzi is, by consensus on this blog, a product of Spontinian influences). The ultimate problem with Tannhauser is that it is far more experimental than probably any opera Wagner had written before, so it is bookended by the Dutchman (far more compact and a better story than this although it tackles essentially the same theme of redemption through love, but isn’t as effective at it) and Lohengrin (musically the most conservative of Wagner’s mature works in spite of the fact that it contains no natural musical numbers other than a series of arias), and because he is doing so much (traumatic would be a great word to describe the chromatic nature of the score), it just doesn’t come off in spite of the obviously inspired passages. The plot doesn’t help as it is simply absurd, and this production in particular doesn’t help matters by adding in a lot of ideas that Wagner would probably have never come up with because they are contradictory to the scenario: Venus’ multiple clone personalities, Elizabeth’s suicide, Wolfram’s abduction (?) by Venus and the clones, Tannhauser’s murder at the hands of the Landgrave and his men? What the heck!?! The battery chords (Wagner’s worst problem) are on greater display here because he tries so obviously to connect them to all of the recitatives. Unfortunately this only amplifies the stark differences between what is a musical number (good) and what is recitative (mostly dull narrative unfolding to comparatively minimal accompaniment).  By the way, is Venus supposed to be Satan? It is sort of weird because she does give up, twice, on Tannhauser. More like the passive Jewish Satan than the unrelenting Christian one, no? I try to avoid getting into too much theological discussion on the blog, but here I think it actually is warranted given the subject matter. Apart from the vicarious atonement Elizabeth provides Tannhauser, isn’t this whole scenario more of a “redemption through personal suffering/death” thing rather than something resembling Christian theology? Sure there are references to “the redeemer” which is obvious Jesus (I think? this is Wagner after all!), but it is Tan’s long repentant journey to and from Rome plus Elizabeth’s post-mortem intercession which saves him, not the Crucifixion. Perhaps there is something of Roman Catholic theology in it, but corporal suffering is meant to expunge time from Purgatory, not redeem one from Hell. Why do redemption concepts in Wagner operas (Parsifal too) always seem more Jewish than Christian based to me? Odd given Wagner’s antipathy for Jewish people. He does strongly support vicarious atonement and original sin (the RING!) which is Christian, but his ideas about human beings having the innate, if often untapped, ability to change the world for the better smells suspiciously of Tikkun Olam. Oh it is all so confusing!  Definitely a beta.

4 responses to “Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser et le tournoi des chanteurs a la Wartburg (1861)”

  1. It’s in French – good! Wagner in a comprehensible language. But it also sounds a dreadful production.

    Back when I was first getting into Wagner (I later got out, obvs), I listened to the Paris version first, and thought it was one of the most boring things I’d ever heard; the singing contest draaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaged. I’ve got the Dresden version, conducted by Gerdes. That’s quite good.

    The plot’s largely lifted from Meyerbeer’s Robert, with a score imitating Halévy.


    1. You know I could believe that the plot is similar to Robert and the score is rather more like Halevy than Meyerbeer.

      You know the Song Contest is actually longer in the Dresden version. They had to cut some songs out from the original because there weren’t enough soloists for the Paris production, at least that is what I’ve read.

      It was a terrible production, they should never have taken so many liberties and the conducting felt slower than it actually was. I mean, Tannhauser in less than 3 hours is still fast paced, but I don’t remember the Venusberg scene being 50 solid minutes anywhere else! Sometimes it is only 35 minutes!


      1. Well, there’s the tournament with marriage to the heroine as prize; the tenor caught between a sinful world and a virtuous woman (who’s the mother/Madonna’s intercessor); and the heroine kneeling at the cross, for starters. But it sounds a lot more like Halévy!

        I listened first to the Konwitschny 1960 set. Apparently it’s an amalgam of Paris and Dresden.

        Tannhauser is also the only Wagner opera I’ve seen live. That was a modern production with an obese, priapic Cupid in a nappy, skeletal bats dangling from the ceiling, and aspidistras all over the stage (to mock the German bourgeoisie – even though this was an Opera Australia production). The Met production is beautiful to look at, though.


      2. Why are modern productions so weird? Is it just the culture or were we always this strange?


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