Since quitting the Wartburg artistic guild, the singer Tannhäuser has lived with the goddess Venus in her magical world. Despite their love and lust, and his freedom from societal responsibilities, Tannhäuser yearns for the world of the mortals. Venus feels betrayed, but Tannhäuser nevertheless breaks with her. She predicts that he will one day return to her.
Ashamed of his sojourn in the Venusberg, Tannhäuser avoids returning to the Wartburg. The singer Wolfram von Eschenbach reminds him of his responsibility to the singers’ guild and to Elisabeth, the landgrave’s niece, who was plunged into melancholy and withdrew from their company after Tannhäuser’s departure. Upon hearing her name, Tannhäuser’s fond memories are rekindled. He overcomes his shame and returns to the Wartburg and to Elisabeth.
Wolfram organizes a secret meeting between Tannhäuser and Elisabeth, but he is uneasy witnessing their happy reunion. The landgrave announces a singing contest, whose theme is to be the essence of love, with Elisabeth’s love as the prize. Wolfram and Walther von der Vogelweide offer moralizing songs of courtly love; Tannhäuser, on the other hand, sings of the passion he experienced with Venus. There is great consternation among the guests, who even threaten Tannhäuser with death. Elisabeth, however, admits she loves him and chides the company that they have no right to judge him. Realizing he has injured Elisabeth, and to quell his guilt, Tannhäuser agrees to the landgrave’s suggestion that he join the pilgrims on their journey to Rome and ask absolution from the pope.
Elisabeth anxiously awaits the return of the pilgrims, but Tannhäuser is not among them. In a plea to the Virgin Mary, she offers her own life in return for Tannhäuser’s salvation. Wolfram sings a hymn to the evening star, asking it to guide Elisabeth on her final journey. Then he happens upon Tannhäuser, who tells him that he alone was denied absolution. In an ecstatic burst of yearning, Tannhäuser proclaims his desire to return to Venus. Wolfram tries to prevent him. Only when Wolfram repeats Elisabeth’s name does Tannhäuser snap out of his delirium. Elisabeth, he learns, has died for his own redemption. Tannhäuser comprehends the depth of her love and leaves Venus for good.
translation: Jonathan Reeder