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Theatre / Tannhäuser

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Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (or, in English, "Tannhäuser and the Song-Contest at the Wartburg Castle"), more commonly known as Tannhäuser, is a "romantic opera in three acts" by Richard Wagner. The opera first premiered in Dresden in 1845, but a revised and extended version (translated into French!) was prepared by the composer for the Paris Opéra in 1861, and it is this later version that is more commonly performed today (in a suitably Teutonic retranslation by the composer).

Wagner based the plot of his opera on a conflation of two originally unconnected legends. The first tells of a minnesinger (or "minstrel of love") and knight, called the Tannhäuser (literally, "man from the fir-tree-home"), who descended into a subterranean kingdom under a mountain (the so-called "Mountain of Venus" or Venusberg, identified by Wagner with the real Hörselberg near the town of Eisenach) and won the favors of the goddess of love (called alternately Venus or Holda, her Latin or German names, by Wagner); after a period of some years, the knight repented and fled the Venusberg to seek penance from Pope Urban IV; the pope rejects his penitence, telling him that sooner will his staff grow new leaves than forgiveness be possible for such as he, and Tannhäuser, despairing, returns to Venus — three days later the staff does indeed burst into leaf, but the pope's messengers cannot find the knight. The second tells of the "War of Song" conducted by the legendary minnesinger Heinrich von Ofterdingen (and his sorcerous companion Clinschor (=Klingsor (!)) of Hungary) against the most famous minstrels of mediæval Germany at the court of Landgraf (or "territorial count") Hermann von Thüringen; in the course of which Clinschor prophecies the birth of Elizabeth of Hungary, later to be the wife of the Landgrave's son and a canonized saint. Wagner radically reshaped these legends, identifying the historical (though pseudonymous) Tannhäuser with the (probably) mythical Ofterdingen, and transporting the former from his own time (fl. c. 1250 A.D.) to that of Landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia, some 50 years before, and transforming the Landgrave's daughter-in-law into his niece and Tannhäuser's true love.

For a summary of the plot, see our synopsis page.

Wagner's opera drew from many sources: a popular ballad reprinted in the famous folk-song collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn; Heinrich Heine's poem „Der Tannhäuser: Eine Legende"; E. T. A. Hoffmann's "Der Kampf der Sänger" (included in his Die Serapions-Brüder); and possibly from Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz, an opera which Wagner greatly admired and with which Tannhäuser shows some structural similarities (Weber himself had considered writing a Venusberg opera). It proved highly popular in Germany, but the première of the revised version at the Paris Opéra was a notorious failure — though more for political and personal reasons than artistic ones. (The gentlemen of the royalist Jockey Club resented both Wagner's patron, the Bonapartist Princess Metternich, and his refusal to put the then-obligatory ballet sequence in the second rather than the first act of the opera, requiring the prime donne of the Opéra to forgo either the ballet or their suppers — with the gentlemen of the royalist Jockey Club. At the first three performances they interrupted the opera with cabman's whistles, and the disgruntled Wagner withdrew the work. (To the anti-Semitic composer's even greater disgust, the settings and costumes were immediately re-used for a new production of Meyerbeer's ever-popular Robert le Diable.)) However, the new version quickly established itself, and the opera, in both versions, has proven to be one of the composer's most popular works, both in the opera-house and in the concert-hall.

Blade Runner's Tannhäuser Gate is probably inspired by this Tannhäuser.

Tannhäuser is associated with the following tropes:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: As in these lines: „Wenn wir den grimmen Welfen widerstanden,/Und den verderbenvollen Zwiespalt wehrten...English 
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Elisabeth ignores the virtuous, chivalrous Wolfram while pining away for the arrogant Heinrich, who has forsaken the Minnesingers and is living with a pagan goddess. When he admits his evil and is sent away on pilgrimage, she prays for him and ignores Wolfram some more. And when Heinrich comes back having failed to get absolution for his sins, she dies for him.
  • All There in the Manual: The Venusberg is identified as the Hörselberg, the "Hall of Art" as being in the Wartburg, and Heinrich as Tannhäuser only in the title and the stage directions.
  • Anachronism Stew: In the original legend, Tannhäuser seeks forgiveness from Pope Urban IV, who reigned from 1261-1264; in the opera, Landgraf Hermann, who had died in 1217, is alive to witness Tannhäuser's return from Rome.
  • The Atoner: Heinrich after he is sent to Rome. On his return, he describes how how instead of following the pilgrims on the road, he walked through rocks and thorns; instead of resting with them in the hospice, he slept outside in the snownote ; when travelling through the beautiful meadows of Italy he kept his eyes to the ground in front of him. His failure to receive absolution has left him a broken man.
  • Betty and Veronica: Heinrich has the saintly Elisabeth as Betty and the sensual Venus as Veronica.
  • Beyond Redemption: On hearing of Heinrich's transgressions, the Pope tells him that "just like this dead staff in my hand will never put out fresh leaves", Heinrich will never receive God's mercy. God disagrees.
  • Common Time: The Entrance of the Guests
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Averted. All the basses and baritones are on the side of Good (though Biterolf is a bit of a Jerkass). The annoying Heinrich himself is a tenor.
    • On the other hand, the most "evil" female in the show, the possessive, vampish Venus, is also the lowest-voiced female in the show.
  • Fanfare: Several of Wagner's Leitmotifs (e.g., the "Rome" motif) have the character of fanfares; a more conventional example introduces the Festival March. At Bayreuth, certain motifs are played as fanfares from the balcony of the Festspielhaus to announce the beginning of an act.
  • Femme Fatale: Venus
  • First-Name Basis: The name "Tannhäuser" is not spoken by any character in the opera. (Nor is "Ofterdingen," for that matter.)
  • Flanderization: Happens to, of all things, the Pope's staff. In the original and Wagner's version, the staff is to send forth new leaves; some productions and later depictions (e.g., H. G. Wells' The Man Who Could Work Miracles) make the staff burst into bloom, particularly roses.
  • Get Out!: Biterolf's reaction to Heinrich's entry in the song contest.
    Heraus oder kämpfe mit uns allen!
  • The High Middle Ages: Around the turn of the 12th/13th centuries, though some producers like to costume it in the style of the Manesse Codex from the first half of the 14th. (This MS. gives us the famous representation of the original Tannhäuser wearing the habit of The Teutonic Knights.)
  • Historical Domain Character: Quite a few: der Tannhäuser (c. 1205 - c. 1270) himself (though, as far we know, he was not named Heinrich — he may have been named Liutpolt), a mid-thirteenth century minnesinger, some of whose songs have survived; Herman, Landgrave of Thuringia (c. 1160 - 1217); Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1170 - c. 1220), possibly the greatest of mediæval Germany's narrative poets (whose Parzival inspired Wagner's Parsifal); Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1175-c. 1230), certainly mediæval Germany's greatest lyric poet; ; Heinrich der Schreiber (c. 1180 - c. 1230); and Reinmar von Zweter (c. 1200 - c. 1250.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Wolfram has intense feelings for Elizabeth, but recognizes that she is in love with Heinrich, and only prays for her happiness.
  • Leitmotif: Though not as carefully worked out as in his later operas, Wagner already employs themes and motifs to characterize ideas such as Venus and Rome.
  • Nice Guys Finish Last: Elisabeth pines for, chases, pleads for, prays for, and ultimately dies for the arrogant, blasphemous Heinrich. The kindly, chivalrous Wolfram (who is all-too-obviously pining away for her) never gets a second look.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Elisabeth, though not herself historical, is clearly based on the historical Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207 - 1231, canonized 1235), who was the wife of the Hermann I's son, Blessed Louis (Ludwig) of Thuringia (1201 - 1228).
  • Opening Ballet: When Wagner was revising Tannhäuser in preparation for the 1861 Paris production, he had to accommodate the Opéra's demands that every opera should have a ballet, preferably in the middle of the evening. Wagner objected to placing the ballet in the second act, instead providing a ballet at the very beginning — thus provoking noisy demonstrations by the gentlemen of the royalist Jockey Club.
  • Popcultural Osmosis: How many people know the "Pilgrims' Chorus as "Wetuwn, my Wuv! A wonging buwns deep inside me!"?
  • The Power of Friendship: Inspires Wolfram to try to save Heinrich
  • The Power of Love: Inspires Elisabeth to try to save Heinrich, and Heinrich to try to be saved, for Elisabeth's sake
  • Princess Classic: Elisabeth
  • Putting on the Reich: In Götz Friedrich's notorious 1972 production at Bayreuth, Landgraf Hermann and his nobles were costumed similarly to Nazi storm troopers.
  • Shaming the Mob: The knights are shocked and enraged by Heinrich's lascivious song and have already drawn steel on him, when Elizabeth convinces them to banish him instead. He's given the option of joining a pilgrimage to Rome and seeking absolution and forgiveness, and only then is he allowed to return.
  • Tenor Boy: Subverted, perhaps, in that the more sensual Heinrich is a tenor, the more innocent Wolfram a baritone.

Alternative Title(s): Tannhaeuser Und Der Saengerkrieg Auf Wartburg, Tannhauser