Tannhäuser, a minnesinger from the court of Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia, has been at the Venusberg for some time now and is the lover of the goddess of love. In the midst of a bacchanal, the singer recalls his earlier life among humanity. He decides to leave Venus and her heavenly kingdom to return to earth. Venus tries to hold him back. But only when he calls to the Virgin Mary does the Venusberg let him go. Tannhäuser finds himself in a valley not far from the Wartburg. A young shepherd praises the arrival of spring. A chorus of pilgrims on their way to Rome passes by in song, and Tannhäuser joins in. He is thus found by Landgrave Hermann and the singers accompanying him, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Walther von der Vogelweide, Biterolf, Heinrich der Schreiber, and Reimar von Zweter. Wolfram recognizes his long missing friend. But when asked where he has been so long, Tannhäuser dodges the question, saying he wants to go on his way. It is only when Wolfram mentions Elisabeth, the Landgrave’s niece, and the effect that Tannhäuser’s song has on her, that he changes his mind and returns with the others to the Wartburg. He wants to see Elisabeth again.
Elisabeth enters the Wartburg for the first time since Tannhäuser’s disappearance. When Tannhäuser enters the hall together with Wolfram, she is unable to hide her feelings for the returning minnesinger. Tannhäuser also admits that he has returned for her. Tannhäuser leaves the hall joyfully, when soon thereafter the Landgrave enters and Elisabeth announces a singer competition in which Tannhäuser will also take part. He greets the arriving guests at the court. As the subject for the compeition, he proposes “exploring the essence of love.” Four pages announce the order of the competition: Wolfram, Walther, and Biterolf sing the praises of pure, courtly ideal love, while Tannhäuser, who keeps on interrupting, sings ever more clearly the praises of sensual pleasure as the true essence of love. Finally, he goes so far as to appeal to Venus herself. Society and the singers present are scandalized and want to force Tannhäuser to silence. Elisabeth intervenes, although she herself is deeply hurt by what she hears, and places herself between Tannhäuser and the attackers. The Landgrave speaks his judgment: Tannhäuser is to be banished—he should join the pilgrims to Rome and ask the Pope to forgive him his sins.
Elisabeth waits in Wartburg Valley for Tannhäuser’s return. The pilgrims return from Rome, but Tannhäuser is not among them. Elisabeth offers the Virgin Mary her life in atonement for his guilt. Then she returns to the Wartburg. Wolfram, who observed her, sings a song to the evening star in which he foresees Elisabeth’s immanent death. The despairing Tannhäuser appears and reports to Wolfram of his pilgrimage to Rome, revealing that the Pope refused to grant him the mercy he had hoped for. Tannhäuser’s sins would only be forgiven only if the Pope’s croisier were to sprout fresh green leaves within the next three days. His only remaining option is to return to the Venusberg. At that very moment, Venus appears in the flesh and seeks to entice Tannhäuser back to her. Yet with the power of the name Elisabeth, Wolfram is able to counteract the magic of the goddess. A procession approaches the Wartburg with the dead Elisabeth. Her sacrificial death has redeemed Tannhäuser. Young pilgrims return from Rome and tell him of the mercy that Tannhäuser now has been granted: the Pope’s crosier has indeed sprouted leaves. Tannhäuser dies.