Tannhauser Synopsis

A summary of Wagner's 3-act opera

Tamara Wilson performing an aria from Wagner's 'Tannhauser.'
T. Hiroyuki Ito / Contributor

Richard Wagner's Tannhauser three-act opera premiered on October 19, 1845, in Dresden, Germany. The story is set in 13th-century Germany.

Tannhauser, ACT 1

Held as a willing captive in the Venusberg, Tannhauser sings a song praising Venus who has showered him with love for over a year. He finishes his song by asking for his freedom - he longs for a more simple, earthly life, and springtime filled with the sounds of church bells.

Venus, disappointed, tries to persuade Tannhauser with frivolity. Her attempts to change his heart were unsuccessful, and Tannhauser prays to the Virgin Mary. In an instant, the goddess's spell is broken and she disappears.

Tannhauser is transported beneath the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach on a warm, sunny spring day. Realizing his fortune, Tannhauser falls to his knees to give thanks as a group of pilgrims pass by. Horns sound announcing the arrival of the Landgrave, and when he and his knights venture past Tannhauser, several of the knights recognize him and invite him back to the castle. Several years prior, Tannhauser lost a singing contest. Out of shame, he left the court and took up with Venus. Tannhauser hesitated to join the other knights until Wolfram informed him that his song won over Elisabeth's heart. He quickly, and happily, follows them into the castle.

Tannhauser, ACT 2

Elisabeth has secluded herself since Tannhauser's departure several years prior.

When she learns that he has returned, she gladly participates in another singing contest where she will grant the winner her hand in marriage. Wolfram reunites Tannhauser and Elisabeth and the two share a happy moment. The contest begins with a beautiful love song by Wolfram. He too loves Elisabeth.

Wolfram's song sends Tannhauser into a tizzy. Tannhauser, still under the influence of Venus, sings a horrifying song of finding love in the pleasure of the senses. The women flee the hall and the other knights draw their swords. Elisabeth protects Tannhauser from harm. Tannhauser asks for their pardon. The Landgrave allows Tannhauser to travel to Rome with the other pilgrims so that he can seek the Pope's forgiveness.

Tannhauser, ACT 3

Months go by and a brokenhearted Elisabeth seeks news of Tannhauser from each passing pilgrim. Accompanied by Wolfram, she collapses to her knees and prays to the Virgin Mary to receive her soul in heaven. Wolfram has devoted himself to Elisabeth even though she has never returned to him a love as deep as his. After having a premonition of her death, he sings a stunning song to the evening star to guide her safely into the afterlife. (This is one of my favorite baritone arias.) When Wolfram ends his song, he sees Tannhauser approaching the castle in torn robes. Tannhauser did not receive the Pope's forgiveness. In fact, the Pope told him that his chances of gaining absolution were about as high as the Pope's staff growing a flower from its handle. Full of despair, Tannhauser begs Venus to receive him once more.

When she appears to him, Wolfram calls out that he sees a funeral procession carrying the body of Elisabeth. Tannhauser abandons Venus yet again and rushes to Elisabeth's coffin. Throwing himself over her body, he weeps and prays. Tannhauser dies, grief-stricken. Suddenly a young pilgrim shouts that a flower has sprouted from the Pope's staff.

Other Popular Opera Synopses

Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
Mozart's The Magic Flute
Verdi's Rigoletto
Puccini's Madama Butterfly