Next up locally from The Met’s Live in HD: Tannhäuser by Wagner

A scene from Wagner's Tannhäuser. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

A scene from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Most people don’t know that Wagner was far more than an opera composer. Wilhelm Richard Wagner was also a theatre director, polemicist, and conductor who today’s audiences remember primarily for his stirring, leitmotiv infused (A recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.) music. But unlike most opera composers, even today, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music for each of his stage works. The big sound and grand production of the bombastic opera composer is next up Live in HD from the Met: as Tannhäuser by Wagner conducted by James Levine and with host, Susan Graham as it is shared with the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Beacon Cinema screens in the Berkshires, and 2,000 others around the world.

The telecast starts earlier than usual, at noon, on October 31, 2015.

Met Music Director James Levine has had to winnow down the number of operas he conducts [read our story “James Levine forced to choose between Tannhäuser and Lulu]. Turns out that Wagner’s early masterpiece Tannhäuser is high on his list as you will see in its first-ever Live in HD performance on Saturday, October 31 at 12pm EST. Otto Schenk’s classic production, in its first revival in more than a decade, stars Johan Botha in his company role debut as the title character; Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth, adding another Wagner heroine to her Met repertoire after her acclaimed Sieglinde in Die Walküre; Michelle DeYoung as the love goddess Venus, which she sang in the opera’s previous revival; Peter Mattei as Wolfram, following his recent triumph as Amfortas in Parsifal; and Günther Groissböck as the Landgraf.






“Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung is Venus, and she seemed to relish the role, singing with lustrous, and lusty, power. She and Botha were intense and involving together in the Venusberg scene, and her ability in her role matched his. The most powerful voice onstage was that of soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who sang Elisabeth. Her G in the opening phrase of “Dich, teure Halle” filled the house. Her voice has the richness usually heard with mezzos, with a soprano’s shine, and throughout the night, her instrument had more presence than any other, including those in the pit.” – New York Classical Review

Tannhäuser had its world premiere at the Dresden, Court Opera, October 19, 1845 Premiere of revised version: Opéra, Paris, 1861. History, myth, and invention come together in Tannhäuser to create a unique and powerful drama. The title character was a real 13th-century Minnesinger who inspired a legend that Wagner used as the basis for the opera. He notably added the character of Elisabeth, based on the historical Saint Elisabeth of Hungary, wife of the Landgrave of Thuringia. The opera’s score went through several revisions after the original performances, most importantly when Wagner added the Venusberg ballet for the 1861 French premiere.

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Plot Synopsis


Wartburg castle and environs, medieval Germany. The minnesinger Tannhäuser, having spent a year in the magical underground realm of Venus, the goddess of love, longs to return to the human world. He pays tribute to Venus in a song but ends by asking her to let him go. Surprised, Venus promises him even greater pleasures, but when he insists and repeats his pleas, she furiously dismisses him and curses his desire for salvation. Tannhäuser cries out that his hope rests with the Virgin Mary—and suddenly finds himself transported to a valley near the castle of the Wartburg.

A procession of pilgrims passes on the way to Rome. Tannhäuser is deeply moved and praises the wonders of God, as horns announce the arrival of a hunting party. It is Landgrave Hermann with his knights. Recognizing Tannhäuser as their long-lost friend, they beg him to return to the castle with them, but Tannhäuser is reluctant. Wolfram, one of the knights, reminds him that his singing once won him the love of Elisabeth, the Landgrave’s niece. On hearing her name, Tannhäuser understands what he must do and joins his companions.


Elisabeth joyfully greets the Wartburg’s Hall of Song, which she hasn’t set foot in since Tannhäuser left. He is now led in by Wolfram. Elisabeth, at first shy and confused, tells Tannhäuser how she has suffered in his absence, but then joins him in praise of love. Observing their emotional reunion, Wolfram realizes that his own affection for Elisabeth is hopeless.

Landgrave Hermann is delighted to find his niece in the Hall of Song, and together they welcome their guests who have come for a song contest. The Landgrave declares love the subject of the competition and promises the victor to receive whatever he asks from the hand of Elisabeth. Wolfram opens the contest with a heartfelt tribute to idealized love. Tannhäuser, his thoughts still on Venus, replies with a hymn to worldly pleasures. Other singers counter his increasingly passionate declarations until Tannhäuser breaks out into his prize song to Venus, to the horror of the guests. As the men draw their swords, Elisabeth throws herself between the parties to protect Tannhäuser and begs the knights for mercy. The Landgrave pronounces his judgment: Tannhäuser will be forgiven if he joins the pilgrims on their way to Rome to do penance. Tannhäuser falls at Elisabeth’s feet and rushes from the hall.


Several months later, Wolfram comes across Elisabeth praying at a shrine in the valley. A band of pilgrims, back from Rome, passes by, but Tannhäuser is not among them. Broken with grief, Elisabeth prays to the Virgin Mary to receive her soul into heaven. Wolfram gazes after her and asks the evening star to guide her way. Night falls, and a solitary pilgrim approaches. It is Tannhäuser, ragged and weary. He tells Wolfram of his devout penitence on the way to Rome—of his joy at seeing so many others pardoned, and of his despair when the Pope proclaimed that he could no more be forgiven for his sins than the papal staff bear green leaves again. Left without hope, all he wants now is to return to Venus. He summons her and she appears, just as Wolfram once again brings Tannhäuser to his senses by invoking Elisabeth’s name. At this moment, Elisabeth’s funeral procession comes winding down the valley. With a cry, Venus disappears. Tannhäuser implores Elisabeth to pray for him in heaven and collapses dead. As dawn breaks, another group of pilgrims arrives, telling of a miracle: the Pope’s staff, which they bear with them, has blossomed.
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