«Tannhäuser and the Minnesingers» Contest at the Wartburg»
Opera is performed with one interval
Libretto by Richard Wagner based on the medieval German saga «Der Kampf der Sänger»
The choir and orchestra of the theatre participate in the performance.
Richard Wagner is an outstanding German romantic composer of the XIX century, a musician of brilliant talent, whose creative heritage left an important mark on the history of world musical art. Having a huge artistic gift, Wagner proved himself not only as a composer, but also as a talented conductor who became one of the founders of new conductor art, as a poet and playwright, the author of the librettos for all his operas, as a critic-publicist who created several volumes of literary works, dealing with various issues – from politics to art, as a reformer of the opera – a creator of a new musical drama, which drastically changed the course of development of the opera genre.
Even in his youth, the composer became interested in the folk legend of the sinner Tannhäuser, who spent a year in Venus’ kingdom, and in whose hands, contrary to the Pope’s curse, a staff was blossoming as a sign of God’s forgiveness. Wagner was also captured by E. T. A. Hoffmann’s novel «The Singer’s Contest», based on an old German story about the contest of famous minnesingers, that was held in Wartburg in the XIII century. Thus, in the opera, Tannhäuser became a participant of the contest along with the real historical characters including Wolfram von Eschenbach, a well-known German poet of the Middle Ages (1170 – 1220), the author of poems about Lohengrin and Parsifal, which Wagner used in his operas later. The third legend, which was used as a source for the creation of the opera libretto, is the story of the Hungarian princess Elisabeth, who became the prototype of the main character of the opera. For her acts of mercy and help to the poor and the abandoned, she was canonized by the Catholic Church as a symbol of graciousness for a neighbour. Thus, plot of a new opera and characters of the protagonists are unique for Wagner as a playwright and poet. From then onwards, such a method of processing and reinterpretation of poetic motives of folk narratives becomes typical for him.
In summer 1842 the composer began writing a script for a new opera, and the next year the libretto was completely finished on July 4. On October 19, 1845, at the Royal Saxon Court Theatre of Dresden the premiere of the opera was held under direction of R. Wagner. «Tannhäuser» was awarded both high praise and extreme condemnation by critics. The Viennese music expert Eduard Hanslick, who was not an admirer of Wagner’s work at all, wrote: «I strongly believe that this is the best thing that has been achieved in the great opera for the last twenty years … Richard Wagner, I am sure, is the greatest dramatic talent among all modern composers». Upon an initiative of Princess von Metternich the premiere of the opera was held in Paris (in French) in March 1861. For this production, Wagner inserted a ballet into Act I, according to the traditions of the French audience, expanded the scene of Tannhäuser and Venus in Act I and reduced The Singer’s Contest in Act II. The new premiere was marked by a scandal and the Paris version of «Tannhäuser» was not consolidated in the theatrical practice. According to Charles Baudelaire, several factors affected it: the routine habits of the audience, who used to perceive music as a background to the entertainment.
«Tannhäuser» is a romantic opera with its typical contrasts of fiction and reality, solemn processions, dance scenes, big choruses and ensembles. This work played an important role in shaping the musical style and principles of Wagner’s drama, which embodied in so-called composer’s operatic reform. Its essence is an absolute synthesis of music and drama, accurate and true transmission of a poetic word, which led to reliance on recitation style; increasing the role of an orchestra, motivating and explaining feelings and situations; setting new principles of shaping – cross-cutting scenes based on constantly updating material and including episodes of cantilena and recitative, solo and ensemble; using the system of leitmotifs.
In the center of the plot of the opera is the story of the knight Tannhäuser, who, despite the pampered life in the kingdom of the goddess of love Venus, seeks to return home. No convictions, no threats of Venus change his decision – Tannhäuser goes to the people’s world. He meets Wolfram von Eschenbach, who is his comrade in arms and songwriter. He persuades Tannhäuser to join the knights. The Landgrave of Wartburg announces the future singers contest. His niece Elisabeth hopes that Tannhäuser, whom she is in love with, will be a winner. The theme of the contest is «Love» and the winner will become Elisabeth’s husband. Wolfram von Eschenbach sings about sublime and pure love. Tannhäuser, on the other hand, performs a passionate anthem dedicated to Venus. Everybody is in a rage by his daring behaviour. Only Elisabeth becomes Tannhäuser’s defender. Tannhäuser is forbidden to return to his native land until he receives the pardon of the Pope. Tannhäuser goes to Rome with the pilgrims. Elisabeth prays to the heavens to accept her life for Tannhäuser’s sins. Wolfram tries to hold her from a rash venture, but everything is in vain. Tannhäuser appears. He tells that the Pope has pronounced his verdict: as his staff will never blossom in his hands, so Tannhäuser will never be forgiven. The mournful procession is approaching with the news of Elisabeth’s death. Tannhäuser, struck by the news of the death of his beloved, dies. The pilgrims’ choir announces a miracle: the Pope’s staff is blooming, Tannhäuser is forgiven.