In 1842, soon after becoming Saxon Court Composer in Dresden, Wagner visited the Wartburg, a thousand-year-old castle on a mountain overlooking the Thuringian city of Eisenach. There, Wagner became entranced by the tales of Tannhäuser and his love for the Landgrave's daughter Elisabeth, as well as the 13th-century Sängerkrieg: the Minstrels' Contest in which such famous Minnesänger as Walther von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach (author of Parzival), and many others took part. Not long after, Wagner put pen to paper and three years later produced Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest at Wartburg Castle)—better known as Tannhäuser. (Synopsis and other details here.)
The original Sängerkrieg took place in the Wartburg's Great Hall, which remarkably still stands today. And, thanks to the efforts of the Meiningen State Theater, I was able to experience the Sängerkrieg myself last night through their excellent semi-staged production of Tannhäuser. The wood-paneled room filled with medieval carvings was as ideal acoustically as it was visually, with the singers and the Meininger Hofkapelle (led by one GMD Philippe Bach) sounding crisp and clear all the way to the back. (The hall only held about 300 or so.)
For the first two acts, daylight streamed in through the western windows. But in Act III, darkness overtook the hall, allowing the audience to concentrate on the action onstage. Then, for the final scene where Tannhäuser finally achieves redemption for his transgressions, the ancient chandeliers dramatically came on until they were at full brightness. It was a simple, yet stunning effect.
The singers weren't household names, but their obvious devotion to this opera yielded some unquestionably strong performances. Tannhäuser was sung by Richard Decker, who, though shaky at times, soldiered through. Soprano Camila Ribero-Souza was forcefully dramatic as Elisabeth while baritone Dae-Hee Shin was a powerful and convincing Wolfram. And bass Ernst Garstenauer melded authority with tenderness as the Landgrave Hermann. The choruses—including the thrilling men's chorus in Act II—were all sung offstage, underneath the balcony which ran along the west side of the hall.
For those who might find themselves in these parts, there will be one more performance of Tannhäuser in the Wartburg on June 23; contact the Wartburg for more information.
More pics on the photo page.