Opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini. Text by lllica and Giacosa, after Sardou’s drama.
The scene is laid in Rome. The first act takes place in the church of Sant’ Andrea alla Valle. Cesare Angelotti, a state prisoner, has escaped from jail and is hiding in a private chapel, of which his sister, the Lady Attavanti, has secretly sent him the key. When he has disappeared from view the painter Mario Cavaradossi enters the church. He is engaged in painting a picture to represent Mary Magdalen. The canvas stands on a high easel, and the sacristan, who is prowling about, recognizes with scandalized amazement and indignation that the sacred picture resembles a beautiful lady who comes to pray daily in the church. The old man, after having left a basket with food for the painter, retires grumbling at this sacrilege.
When he is gone, Angelotti comes forward, and the painter, recognizing in the prisoner the consul of the late Roman Republic who is at the same time an intimate friend of his own, puts himself at his disposal; but, hearing the voice of his fiancee Tosca, who demands entrance, he begs the prisoner, a victim of the vile Scarpia, to retire into the chapel, giving him the refreshments which the sacristan has left.
At last he opens the church door, and Tosca, a famous singer, enters looking suspiciously around her, for she is of a jealous disposition. She begs her lover to wait for her at the stage door in the evening. He assents and tries to get rid of her, when her suspicions are reawakened by the sight of the picture, which she sees is a portrait of the Lady Attavanti. With difficulty he succeeds in persuading her of his undying love, and at last induces her to depart ; he then enters the chapel and urges Angelotti to fly while the way is clear. The chapel opens into a deserted garden from Holy Virgin ; but not that a faithful lover may be given back to her rather that he may be pardoned and his immortal soul saved. Wolf rani is beside her; he loves the maiden, but he has no thought for himself ; he only feels for her whose life he sees ebbing swiftly away, and for his unhappy friend.
Presently, when Elisabeth is gone, Tannhauser comes up in pilgrim’s garb. He has passed a hard journey, full of sacrifices and castigation, and all in vain, for the Pope has rejected him. He has been told in hard words that he is forever damned and will as little get deliverance from his grievous sin as the stick in his hand will ever bear green leaves afresh.
Full of despair, Tannhauser is returning to seek Venus, whose siren songs already fall alluringly on his ear. Wolfram entreats him to fly, and when Tannhauser fails to listen he utters Elisabeth’s name. At this moment a procession descends from the Wartburg chanting a funeral song over an open bier. Elisabeth lies on it dead, and Tannhauser sinks on his knee be-side her, crying, “Holy Elisabeth, pray for me.” Then Venus disappears and all at once the withered stick begins to bud and blossom, and Tannhauser, pardoned, expires at the side of his beloved.
“Tannhauser” was represented at the Dresden Theater, in June, 1890, according to Wagner’s changes of arrangement, done by him in Paris, 1861, for the Grand Opera, by order of Napoleon III. This arrangement the composer acknowledged as the only correct one.
These alterations were limited to the first scene in the mysterious abode of Venus, and Wagner’s motives for the changes become clearly apparent when it is re-membered that the simple form of “Tannhauser” was composed in the years 1843 and 1845, in and near Dresden, at a time when there were neither means nor taste in Germany for such high-flown scenes as those which excited Wagner’s brain. Afterward success rendered Wagner bolder, and he endowed the person of Venus with more dramatic power and thereby threw a vivid light on the great attraction she exercises on Tannhauser. The decorations are by far richer, and a ballet of sirens and fauns was added, a concession which Wagner had to make to the Parisian taste. Venus’s part, now sung by the first prima donnas, has considerably gained by the alterations, and the first scene is far more interesting than before, but it is to be regretted that the Tournament of Minstrels has been shortened and particularly the fine song of Walter von der Vogelweide omitted by Wagner. All else is as of old, as indeed Elisabeth’s part needed nothing to add to her purity and loveliness, which stand out now in even bolder relief against the beautiful but sensual part of Venus.