Opera Scotland


Richard Wagner (born Leipzig, 2 March 1813; died Venice, 13 February 1883)

The composer.

Derived from mediaeval literary sources and more recent writings by Heine, Tieck and others.

First performance: Dresden (Court Theatre), 19 October 1845.
Revised version: Paris (Opera), 13 March 1861.
First UK performance: London (Covent Garden), 1876.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 1 May 1893.
Scottish Opera première: N/A.

Tannhäuser and the Song Contest at the Wartburg is the rarely used full title of what was for many years all over Britain the most popular of Wagner’s music dramas. For seventy years Carl Rosa, Moody-Manners, and other companies performed it regularly. Its popularity almost rivalled that of Faust, Il Trovatore and Carmen. It is a richly melodic piece full of immediately attractive music including several rousing choruses. Thirteenth century Thuringia was, it seems, a land where the people placed high value on the arts, which extended to holding regular song contests. Near the castle of the Wartburg there is a hill known as the Venusberg, inside which the goddess lived, spending her time in debauchery, to which she enticed the local young men. The conflict between these two activities dominates the plot, symbolised by the contrast between the decadent Venus and the saintly Elisabeth, who have on occasion been sung by the same soprano, and the contradictions within Tannhäuser’s own personality.

Main Characters
Venus (soprano)
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia (bass)
Elisabeth, the Landgrave’s niece (soprano)
Tannhäuser, a knight and minnesinger (tenor)
Wolfram von Eschenbach, another (baritone)
Four other knights: Walther (tenor); Biterolf (bass); Heinrich (tenor); Reinmar (bass).

Plot Summary
Tannhäuser has been lured to the realm of Venus where she has kept him for a year, entertained to the point of exhaustion (and in the revised Paris version this activity includes watching an extensive ballet sequence). He is now bored and wants to return home. At last he calls on the Virgin to help him, and the realm of Venus disappears, leaving him in a valley, where, after watching a party of pilgrims passing on their way to Rome, he is found by a group of hunters, led by the Landgrave and several of his fellow minnesingers, including his friend Wolfram. He only agrees to rejoin the other knights at the castle when Wolfram says that Elisabeth has been pining away in his absence. When the next song contest is held the Landgrave is to award his niece as the prize, confident that Tannhäuser will win. Elisabeth is delighted at his return and anticipates their marriage. But his song is perverted into a shocking hymn in praise of Venus. The contest dissolves in chaos and Elisabeth is heart-broken. Tannhäuser is condemned to expiate his sins by making a pilgrimage to Rome. Months pass as a sickly Elisabeth prays for Tannhäuser’s forgiveness, and Wolfram prays for her safety. As Wolfram watches, the pilgrims return; Tannhäuser is exhausted and distressed because the Pope has refused absolution. They are interrupted by the passage of a funeral procession for Elisabeth, who has died. Tannhäuser himself now dies by her side, as word arrives that he has, after all, been granted absolution.


Dresden version
EMI (3 CDs) Sung in German Recorded 1961

Conductor: Franz Konwitschny
Berlin Staatskapelle
Elisabeth Grümmer (Elisabeth), Hans Hopf (Tannhauser), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Wolfram).

Considering the immense popularity achieved by Tannhäuser in Scotland in the half century up to the Second World War, its extinction since then seems surprising. It has never featured at the Edinburgh Festival, nor in the repertoire of Scottish Opera. Konwitschny was a successful conductor who was never very well known in Britain. This recording makes his domination by other conductors seem rather unfair. He has a superb cast to work with. Hans Hopf was one of the leading German heroic tenore of the time and is thoroughly reliable in the title role. Fischer-Dieskau gives a lyrical performance as Wolfram. Elisabeth Grümmer is a wonderfully pure-voiced Elisabeth. Her Edinburgh Festival roles with the Hamburg company in 1952 included Pamina, Agathe, and Eva, and you would hardly imagine that by 1961 she had already had a career of more than twenty years. The other singers include Christa Ludwig as Venus and Gottlob Frick as the Landgrave,

Paris version
DECCA (3 CDs) Sung in German Recorded 1970

Conductor: Georg Solti
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Helga Dernesch (Elisabeth), René Kollo (Tannhauser), Victor Braun (Wolfram).

Solti divided opinion throughout his career, especially in his conducting of Wagner, where some listeners worry about his tendency to go for short-term excitement at the expense of structure. The Paris version, with its Tristanesque ballet in the opening scene, gains from his approach. This Tannhäuser is one of his most successful Wagner recordings, with wonderful playing from chorus and orchestra. René Kollo was just breaking out into his major international career, and the voice sounds beautifully fresh, even in the travails of his third act Rome narration, when most tenors become exhausted and tend to rant. Helga Dernesch was a great favourite in Scotland at this time. In spring 1970 she sang her first Fidelio with Scottish Opera, and after recording Tannhäuser in October she could concentrate on her 1971 roles – the Marschallin and Siegfried Brünnhilde for Scottish Opera’s spring season, and the Walküre Brünnhilde at the Edinburgh Festival, not to mention Karajan’s recordings of Fidelio and Tristan. The voice is generally glorious, perhaps the only quibble being the fact that her top notes do not melt as Grümmer’s do, and it is possible to see, with hindsight, why she went on to spend most of her long career singing mezzo roles. The Canadian baritone Victor Braun is excellent as Wolfram. The consistently superb singers of the smaller roles include Hans Sotin as the Landgrave, Christa Ludwig as Venus, and Norman Bailey as Reinmar.

The Cast

 a knight and minnesinger
 niece of the Landgrave
Heinrich der Schreiber
 a knight and minnesinger
 Landgrave of Thuringia
Reinmar von Zweter
 a knight and minnesinger
Shepherd boy
 a knight and minnesinger
Walther von der Vogelweide
 a knight and minnesinger
Wolfram von Eschenbach
 a knight and minnesinger

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