Act I Scene 1 The Interior of the Venusberg The setting to the first scene of Act I is the Venusberg: the subterranean lair of the goddess Venus. In accordance to ancient tradition, the gods and goddesses of antiquity did not die with the advent of Christianity. Instead, they took refuge in the underworld. It was believed that Venus, the goddess of love, established her court near the Wartburg. In this production, the Venusberg is part subterranean temple and part high-tech loft. As the overture develops into the ballet that Wagner wrote for the Paris premiere of this work, the curtain rises on an orgiastic dance wildly performed by a corps of nude, bald women. These sirens serve as attendants to the goddess Venus, who like her cohorts, is also bald and nude. The dance is performed in semi darkness, while the rest of the act has a warm bluish ambience. Two massive Grecian columns, at either side of the stage, support this temple which also features a monumental statue of the Venus de Milo before she became the world's most famous double-amputee in the history of Western Art. This narcissistic palace of pleasure should not look like the grotto that Wagner describes in his libretto. Instead, there should be something chic and artistic about the entire set. If the setting brings to mind an exclusive but decadent loft in New York's So-Ho, then so much the better. Ideally, a fusion of the classic and the modern is the ideal balance for this production. Tannhäuser with his white makeup and white t-shirt and pants, looks elegant in a downtown sort of way but, at the same time, completely out of place. Throughout the different acts of this production, Tannhäuser ought to look like a stranger in a strange land. At the end of this scene Tannhäuser invokes the name of the Virgin Mary, and the stage goes totally dark.
Act I Scene 2 The Valley of the Wartburg Upon uttering the sacred name of the Virgin Mary Tannhäuser has been liberated from the grips of Venus, and has been transported out of the Venusberg. The lights slowly begin to come up once more as the orchestra continues playing the transition music. The lights come back up very brightly -- brighter than we have seen them yet. We find Tannhäuser alone in a solitary valley on a beautiful spring day. The sky is a peaceful blue. The off-stage voice of a shepherd boy, playing on his pipes and singing merrily, can be heard. Upstage, what appears to be a gigantic boulder is sitting there: huge and unmovable. It is the focal point of the scene. It can look like a giant rock and its surface should resemble that of a distant and unknown planet. From afar a chorus of pilgrims is heard on their solemn way to Rome. Dramatically, the sky darkens as their song reveals that they are getting closer. They enter from stage right and move across the playing area. They are all uniformly dressed, in contemporary clothes: plain khaki pants and maroon shirts. There should not be any trappings of religious devotion: none of the pilgrims carry crosses or portable altars. One of the pilgrims, a lame or hunchback, approaches the gigantic boulder, throws his weight on it, and with a super-human effort begins rolling it across the stage. In his face the terrible agony of the ordeal is clearly visible. No one helps him in this monumental task. By himself, he rolls the boulder off-stage as the entire chorus passes by. Presumably this is the pilgrim's penance for his sins, and he will roll that boulder all the way to Rome. Tannhäuser, visibly shaken with emotion, falls to his knees in devout thankfulness, praising the fact that miraculously he has been given the chance to return home, away from sin and back to the world of faith and mortals. Suddenly, horns are heard in the distance. A Hummer drives up and stops near Tannhäuser. Landgrave Hermann and his hunting party step out of the vehicle. With him are the minnesingers of his court: Walther von der Vogelweide, Biterolf, Heinrich der Schreiber, Reinmar von Zweter, and Tannhäuser's great friend Wolfram von Eschenbach. As is the custom of the court, they are all bald, and they all wear stylish European suits. Landgrave Hermann stands out in his crisp white suit. They welcome him back to the Wartburg and ask him where he has been. He says that he has wandered very far. Wolfram reminds him of Elisabeth and how much she misses him. Tannhäuser decides to remain with them. They all get inside the vehicle. Wolfram sits behind the wheel and the Landgrave next to him. Tannhäuser gets in the back seat, and the car drives away to the Wartburg.
Act II The Hall of Minstrels in the Wartburg The curtain rises to reveal a spacious, elegant setting dominated in the center by a giant statue of a seated golden Buddha on a massive crystal pedestal. Elisabeth rushes in wearing a very chic pant-suit outfit and, alone on stage, she greets the hall with her aria "Dich teure Halle." She is excited that this beautiful space will once again resonate with music, and she is also overjoyed at the fact that Tannhäuser has finally returned to the Wartburg. To the sounds of joyous fanfares, the guests begin arriving, all praising the good name of Landgrave Hermann. They are all wearing similar outfits. They do not sit, but stand about, as in a crowded but elegant cocktail party. The entire hall eventually fills, and as the strains of the music known as "Entrance of the Guests" comes to a climax, from the wings two gigantic speakers roll out and are placed at either side of the Buddha. A microphone rises from the floor stage center. We are now ready for the song competition. At the mandate of Landgrave Hermann, the subject of the competition will be Love. The contestants all enter and take their places. When it is their turn to sing, they come up to the microphone. As the contest gets underway, it becomes increasingly evident that Tannhäuser is completely alienated from the court since he constantly interrupts the other singers by taking over the mike and singing not about the virtues of Love, but rather about the sensual kind of love that he experienced in the Venusberg. The guests are horrified at his lack of taste and condemn his vulgarity. As the second act comes to an end Tannhäuser is banished from the court. Suddenly feeling ashamed of his behavior, he decides to join the pilgrims on their way to Rome. Elisabeth is now in tears as Tannhäuser once again prepares to leave her and the Wartburg.
Act III The Valley of the Wartburg Two of the themes of the opera Tannhäuser are the search for faith and the fragility of relationships. This setting for Act III attempts to incorporate these themes. The act opens in a remote part of the Valley of the Wartburg. Dominating the setting is a crystal-like structure floating in mid-air. The structure appears to be made up of dozens of giant votive candle holders grouped together. It should evoke a serene setting and, at the same time, a feeling of fragility to the entire scene. The curtain rises on a beautiful sunny afternoon, and Elizabeth has arrived to see if Tannhäuser has returned from his travels. From the distance we hear the song of the pilgrims gradually drawing near. As they cross the stage, she scans their faces to see if Tannhäuser is with them. He has not returned. She sinks to her knees in front of the crystal structure and prays to the Virgin Mary for help. Wolfram has been standing nearby watching the sorowful Elizabeth. Gradually, the stage darkens into night. Elizabeth slowly gets up to return back home and declines Wolfram's invitation to accompany her back. Left by himself in the gathering gloom, and thinking of Elizabeth, whom he secretly adores, Wolfram sings a song to the evening star. A song which is really about the goddess Venus. As Wolfram ends his beautiful but profane song, Tannhäuser appears. He looks tired and disheveled. He asks Wolfram to show him the way to the Venusberg, and Wolfram recoils in horror and pity. Tannhäuser then tells him of his pilgrimage, and of the hardships that he suffered on his way to Rome. When he arrived at the Vatican, he prostrated himself before the Pope in deepest contition, only to be told that salvation was not for him. Tannhäuser recounts how he fled from Rome in despair and how he now wants to go back to the Venusberg. A shimmering light seems to emanate from the structure when he mentions the name of Venus, and a vision of the goddess appears from deep within the structure. Tannhäuser is ready to scale the structure to be with Venus once more. At this point Wolfram recalls to Tannhäuser the name "Elizabeth," and at the mention of her name the goddess vanishes once again. Wolfram exits, and we hear the chorus from backstage mourning that Elizabeth has died. Elizabeth slowly walks out and stands stage left. Tannhäuser stands on the other side. They do not see, touch, or get near one another. The sky now begins to brighten as the structure magically begins to glow with a terrific blinding light. The off-stage chorus sings that the Pope's staff has bloomed green leaves. The crystal structure glows more intensely than ever at the miraculous news. The curtain falls on a stage blazing with lights.