'Scandal at the singing contest': this could be the plot summary of the romantic grand opera Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest of Wartburg, one of Wagner's earlier works, which takes place in the earthly world of 13th-century knights and in the realm of Venus and her nymphs. However, its theme is the very essence of love and its power. Even if the pope withholds absolution, a lover's heart does not. The question is whether this is enough for salvation... Will the staff sprout green leaves? Will God forgive?
The three-part overture is a didactic vision of the main conflict of the opera—the opposition of pure Christian love and sinful, sensual love. The solemn chorus of the pilgrims is followed by sounds of revelry in the Venusberg, after which the chorus serenely returns.
Tannhäuser, the once-famous minstrel who has for more than a year been living in timeless love in the Venusberg, the magical mountain abode of Venus, suddenly becomes disgusted by his life. He is lured back to the real world, and while he half-heartedly praises the goddess of beauty, he longs for the world of people, earthly landscapes, and freedom. The goddess tries to make him stay, but wounded in her pride, she curses Tannhäuser’s hopes of salvation, and lets him go.
Tannhäuser calls on the Virgin Mary and the Venusberg vanishes. He finds himself in a sunny valley near the castle of the Wartburg. A shepherd plays his pipe and sings of the pagan goddess Holda and sweet spring. Some passing pilgrims inspire Tannhäuser to laud the wonders of God and repent his sins.
Before he moves on, the sound of horns echo through the valley, announcing the Landgrave Hermann and his knights. They recognize their long-lost comrade and invite Tannhäuser to join them after his long absence. Tannhäuser, who has set his mind on doing penance for his sins, cannot be swayed until Wolfram von Eschenbach reminds him that in the past his singing won the love of Elisabeth, the landgrave’s beautiful niece. On hearing her name, Tannhäuser gives up his plan and joins his companions. Memories and the news that Elisabeth has for all this time been waiting for him persuade him to stay.
In the ancient Hall of Song in the Wartburg, where the minstrel contests were held, Elisabeth remembers and awaits her long-lost friend.
Wolfram reunites the happy pair, Tannhäuser throws himself before Elisabeth’s feet. He gives elusive answers to Elisabeth’s questions about where he was and why he only returned now. In her bliss Elisabeth confesses that Tannhäuser’s songs kindled love in her heart, and her confession is met with response. Together they celebrate their joint future and the happy continuation of their past.
The Landgrave is glad to hear that Elisabeth has agreed to present the prises at the minstrel contest, but does not ask her what made her change her mind.
The guests enter the Hall of Song and are followed by the contestants. The landgrave greets them and announces the theme of the contest: revealing the essence of love. Wolfram begins. He sings of the pureness of love, the unspoiled source of joy—which is an idealized tribute to Elisabeth, whom he too has loved. Tannhäuser, his soul still possessed by Venus, counters with a frenzied hymn to the pleasures of worldly love. His song is followed by a shocked silence, and the knights side with Wolfram. Their argument has just got out of hand when, to make things worse, Tannhäuser sings of Venus and her ecstatic love, causing a general uproar. The appalled guests flee from the presence of the Tannhäuser who has mortally sinned, and the knights draw their swords. Elisabeth protects the minstrel’s life. Although she may be the person most offended by Tannhäuser’s song, she pleas for mercy. Moved, the knights accept the sinner’s right to do penance. The Landgrave commands Tannhäuser to make a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution.
Wolfram and Elisabeth, lost in her prayers, await the return of the pilgrims before a shrine in the Wartburg valley. Elisabeth searches among approaching pilgrims for Tannhäuser, but in vain. Broken, she prays to the Virgin to receive her and Tannhäuser’s soul in heaven.
Wolfram, alone, sings to the evening star, worrying about Elisabeth’s fate.
Alone and dressed in a tattered pilgrim’s dress, Tannhäuser now staggers in wearily. He refuses to answer Wolfram’s questions and seeks the way to the Venusberg. He changes his mind and relates that despite his abject penitence, the Pope decreed that so grave was his sin that he could not be forgiven unless the papal staff broke into flower. The sinner has no other alternative than to return to sin. The Venusberg opens and the goddess ecstatically awaits her lost lover. Tannhäuser rests by her side, but he is reminded again by Wolfram of Elisabeth. The Venusberg vanishes and a funeral procession now winds down the valley from the castle. The pure virgin has redeemed the sinner with her death. Tannhäuser collapses, dying, by her bier. A chorus of pilgrims enters, recounting a miracle: the Pope’s staff, which they bear forward, has blossomed.