ACT I. The Venusberg (the Hörselberg of "Frau Holda" in Thüringia, in the vicinity of Eisenach.) Tannhäuser is held there a willing captive through his love for Venus. The goddess has won the dreaming Tannhäuser by her fascinations. His head is pillowed in her lap. (Ballet scene; bacchanalian music.) Tannhäuser?s desires are satiated, and he longs for freedom, spring and the sound of church bells. Once again he grasps his harp and pays homage to the goddess in a passionate song of love, which he ends with an earnest plea to be allowed to depart. When Venus again tries to charm him he declares: "My salvation rests in Mary, the mother of God." These words break the unholy spell. Venus and her attendants disappear, and he suddenly finds himself just below the Wartburg. It is springtime; a young shepherd sits upon a rock and pipes an ode to spring; pilgrims in procession pass Tannhäuser as he stands motionless, and stricken with remorse he sobbingly sinks to his knees. Thus he is found by the landgrave and his companions in the chase, Wolfram, Walter, Biterolf, Reimar and Heinrich. They joyfully welcome the sorely missed singer, who has fled from them because he was unsuccessful in the prize singing. He refuses to join them, but when Wolfram informs him that his song had gained for him the heart of Elizabeth, he follows the landgrave and the singers to the Wartburg.
ACT II. Hall of the Wartburg. Elizabeth has been living retired from the world since Tannhäuser?s disappearance. When she hears of his return she joyfully agrees to be present at a prize contest of song, and enters the hail. Wolfram leads Tannhäuser to her; he loves her, but dares not tell her the evil he has done. The landgrave and Elizabeth receive the guests who assemble for the contest, the noblemen of the neighbourhood, who appear in rich attire. (March and chorus.) The landgrave announces the subject of the day to be "Love?s Awakening." Elizabeth is to grant a wish to the victor whatever it may be. Wolfram begins; he declares that love is like a pure stream, which should never be troubled. Tannhäuser replies hotly that he finds the highest love only in the pleasure of the senses. The other singers uphold Wolfram. Tannhäuser replies to each separately, and at last in growing excitement he answers Wolfram with a love song to Venus, and declares that if the knights wish to know love as it is they should repair to the Venusbeng. The women, with the exception of Elizabeth, leave the hall in horror, and the knights draw swords upon Tannhäuser. Elizabeth protects him, and since he expresses his penitence, the landgrave allows him to join a band of pilgrims bound for Rome, where he may perhaps obtain forgiveness from the pope.
ACT III. The valley of the Wartburg. An autumn scene. Orchestral music describes the pilgrimage of Tannhäuser. Elizabeth, accompanied by Wolfram, falls on her knees in prayer. She asks the returning pilgrims for news of Tannhäuser, but in vain. Once again she prays earnestly and returns broken-hearted to the Wartburg. Wolfram, who loves her with faithful devotion, has a presentiment of her death. (Wolfram: "Song to the evening star.") He sees before him a tottering pilgrim in torn garments. It is Tannhäuser, who in despair is seeking the path to the Venusberg. The pope has not forgiven him, but has cursed him irrevocably; he, therefore, calls for Venus, who appears and bids him welcome to her cavern. Wolfram points upward to a funeral procession, which now slowly descends the hill, carrying on a bier the corpse of Elizabeth. Tannhäuser throws himself upon the body, and dies with the words, "Holy Elizabeth, pray for me" upon his lips. The younger pilgrims enter and announce that the staff of Tannhäuser, which the pope had ordered to be erected as a token of his damnation, had sprouted with young leaves in sign of the forgiveness of God. (In 1875 Wagner made some changes in this opera, and in this form it was first produced at Vienna in November, 1875.)
References and external links: Plot taken from The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.