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Wagner's Tannhauser

Duration:
3 hours, 55 minutes
First broadcast:
Saturday 25 December 2010

It's more than 20 years since the Royal Opera House last staged Wagner's opera telling the story of a medieval troubadour's tussle between the sensual and the spiritual. A new production, directed by Tim Albery, opened earlier this month and its cast is headed by the leading South African tenor Johan Botha in the title-role. The two women who represent the opposing poles of his attraction are Venus (sung by Michaela Schuster) and Elisabeth (sung by Eva-Maria Westbroek). There's also a rare chance to hear the leading German baritone Christian Gerhaher in an operatic role. The highly-experienced Wagnerian Semyon Bychkov conducts and Martin Handley introduces proceedings.

Hermann ..... Christof Fischesser (Bass)
Tannhäuser ..... Johan Botha (Tenor)
Wolfram ..... Christian Gerhaher (Baritone)
Walter ..... Timothy Robinson (Tenor)
Biterolf ..... Clive Bayley (Bass)
Heinrich ..... Steven Ebel (Tenor)
Reinmar ..... Jeremy White (Bass)
Elisabeth ..... Eva-Maria Westbroek (Soprano)
Venus ..... Michaela Schuster (Mezzo-soprano)

Semyon Bychkov ..... Conductor
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House.

  • Production Image

    Production Image

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Michaela Schuster as Venus

    Michaela Schuster as Venus

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Alexander Lee as the Shepherd Boy & Johan Botha as Tannhäuser

    Alexander Lee as the Shepherd Boy & Johan Botha as Tannhäuser

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth

    Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram von Eschinbach

    Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram von Eschinbach

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Johan Botha as Tannhäuser (with Jeremy White as Reinmar von Zweter)

    Johan Botha as Tannhäuser (with Jeremy White as Reinmar von Zweter)

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Production Image

    Production Image

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Production Image

    Production Image

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth & Christof Fischesser as Herrmann

    Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth & Christof Fischesser as Herrmann

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram von Eschinbach & Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth

    Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram von Eschinbach & Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Production Image

    Production Image

    © The Royal Opera / Clive Barda, December 2010

  • Synopsis

    Heinrich Tannhäuser, angry and frustrated that his art as a singer is not understood or appreciated, has left his home, the conservative world of the Wartburg. Since then, his singing has won him the love of the goddess Venus.

  • Act I

    Scene 1: The Venusberg

    Venus and Tannhäuser celebrate their sensual life in an increasingly frenzied dance. Tannhäuser, however, has had enough of the pleasures of the Venusberg and longs to return to his home. Venus urges him to forget his old life and to sing for her. Tannhäuser begins to sing in praise of Venus’ beauty (Dir, töne Lob), but the song soon turns into a plea for him to be allowed to return to his earthly life. Venus attempts to seduce Tannhäuser into remaining with her, but Tannhäuser is adamant that he must leave. Eventually, he escapes, but not before Venus has angrily prophesied that he will find no peace in the world of men and will return to her in desperation.

    Scene 2: A valley near the Wartburg

    Tannhäuser finds himself back near his former home. A young boy sings a song to the spring (Frau Holda kam aus dem Berg hervor) and a group of pilgrims pass by, reminding Tannhäuser of his guilt at having been with Venus. He can see only a life of pain and suffering ahead of him.

    Tannhäuser is discovered by the Landgrave, along with Wolfram, Walther, Heinrich der Schreiber, Reinmar and Biterolf, all of them friends and fellow-singers of Tannhäuser. They greet him and urge him to return to the Wartburg. Tannhäuser is reluctant until Wolfram mentions the name of Elisabeth, the Landgrave’s niece, and tells Tannhäuser how Elisabeth has grieved for him, and virtually become a recluse since he disappeared. Hoping that Elisabeth’s love may redeem him, Tannhäuser agrees to return to the Wartburg.

  • Act II

    The Wartburg

    Elisabeth waits excitedly for Tannhäuser’s return (Dich, teure Halle). Tannhäuser is led in by Wolfram, and begs Elisabeth’s forgiveness for his absence. She tells him of how his music moved her in the past, and of her grief when he left the Wartburg. The pair rejoice that they are together again. Wolfram, also in love with Elisabeth, realizes that he has no hope of winning her. Tannhäuser and Wolfram leave as the Landgrave enters. The Landgrave tries to discover Elisabeth’s true feelings for Tannhäuser but she begs him not to question her. The Landgrave tells her that the singing contest he has announced will reveal the truth.

    Once his people are assembled, the Landgrave announces the subject of the song contest: what is the essence of love? The singer who best answers the question will be rewarded whatever prize he wishes by Elisabeth. Wolfram sings of love as a fountain of pure water, that he would never disturb but only worship from afar.

    Tannhäuser contradicts Wolfram, saying that true love is burning desire, rather than spiritual devotion. Walther tells Tannhäuser that it is he who does not know love, stating that love is only virtuous if it is chaste. Tannhäuser responds with scorn, passionately proclaiming the importance of physical desire. This enrages Biterolf, who attacks Tannhäuser for insulting the virtue of woman. The discussion grows increasingly heated until Tannhäuser breaks into a hymn of praise to Venus, revealing hat he has been in the Venusberg.

    The crowd is horrified. The Landgrave and his men are about to attack Tannhäuser when Elisabeth steps forward to defend him. She begs that Tannhäuser be given the chance to repent for her, since he has broken her heart. Tannhäuser is devastated at the pain he has caused Elisabeth and begs for mercy. The Landgrave announces that Tannhäuser must travel with a group of pilgrims from Thuringia to Rome and seek the forgiveness of the Pope. As Tannhäuser sets off with the pilgrims, Elisabeth prays for his salvation.

  • Act III

    The valley near the Wartburg

    Elisabeth, watched by Wolfram, is waiting for the pilgrims to return from Rome, but when they arrive Tannhäuser is not among them. In despair, Elisabeth prays to the Virgin to let her die and through her death save Tannhäuser (Allmächtge Jungfrau). Alone, Wolfram calls on the evening star to guide Elisabeth out of the valley of death on her way to heaven (O du, mein holder Abendstern). Tannhäuser enters, exhausted and bitter. He tells Wolfram that the Pope was horrified at his sins and refused him pardon, telling him that he would only be forgiven if the Pope’s staff sprouted green leaves.

    In despair, Tannhäuser has decided to return to the Venusberg, and calls upon Venus to take him. Wolfram urges him not to give up hope of salvation. Venus appears, calling seductively to Tannhäuser to return to her. Wolfram, desperate to stop Tannhäuser, calls out Elisabeth’s name. At that moment the men of the Wartburg bring news of Elisabeth’s death, and Venus vanishes. Wolfram explains to Tannhäuser that Elisabeth has sacrificed herself in the hope of saving his soul. Having finally understood the depth of Elisabeth’s love, Tannhäuser’s final words are ‘Elisabeth, pray for me.’ And now a miracle is revealed. The Pope’s staff has sprouted green leaves: Tannhäuser’s soul is saved.

    © The Royal Opera

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