So accustomed and enthralled Melbourne audiences have become with experiencing Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth canon that if a year was to pass by without programming one of its works these days, opera goers might very well be outraged.
Melbourne Opera took charge after presenting Tannhäuser in 2016 following Opera Australia’s magnificently staged Ring Cycle in 2013 while Victorian Opera showed their mettle with The Flying Dutchman in 2015. Ever since, between these three companies, audiences are winning big time.
Melbourne Opera’s ambitious and thoroughly crystalline Bendigo Ring Cycle has only just packed up and there we were on Wednesday evening at Hamer Hall marvelling in the sumptuousness of Wagner’s score for Tannhäuser in a concert performance by Opera Australia.
Wagner composed this sprawling three-hour-plus work over almost two years between 1843 and 1845, already on his way to developing his ideal of unifying all works of art via the theatre outlined in his two essays of 1849, ‘Art and Revolution’ and ‘The Artwork of the Future’ – a significant influence on the two revisions for Paris in 1861 and Vienna in 1875.
In concert performance, Tannhäuser certainly couldn’t be considered ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, or ‘a total work of art’, as Wagner intended. Nonetheless, Opera Australia’s brilliantly cast soloists, together with the passionate players of Orchestra Victoria under conductor Johannes Fritzsch and the richness of sound of the Opera Australia Chorus, realised the score with immense polish and emotive power.
Drawn from a variety of sources, Tannhäuser is Wagner’s intriguing paean to penitence and redemption set amongst a society governed by a strict religious code who more or less cannot conceive of love and sexual pleasure in the same breath.
Heinrich, the medieval knight and minnesinger known as Tannhäuser, has lost his way in the pleasures of love in Venus’ realm, Venusberg. No sooner is he welcomed back after satisfying his desires and romantic overtures are rekindled with the Landgrave’s niece, Elizabeth, he is banished for singing blasphemously about the nature of love.
He is instructed to join pilgrims journeying to Rome to seek atonement where Christ’s ‘Vicar on Earth’ damns him to Hell while Elizabeth relinquishes life in a transcendent-like intervention that saves Tannhäuser in all this pious-plugging mess – the conflicts are copious.
Shane Placentino’s direction reached the exact point at which allure, effectiveness and purpose converge, dispensing great impact and adroit subtlety from the bursting stage and choir stalls.
In the title role, potent German heldentenor Stefan Vinke sang with abundant vocal expression and power. Opening ardently in the Venusberg, Vinke’s top-ringing and pliable metallic-like quality effortlessly took on vast emotive territory with every phrase articulated and superbly completed with intent.
Vinke not only demonstrated staying power but, all the way to Act 3’s aching “Rome Narrative”, to which he gave a ravishing portrayal of gravitas and despair, his penetrating communicative style reflected as much power in his use of text as it did in his music.
Appearing in glittering midnight blue, outstanding Australian soprano Anna-Louise Cole gave a performance overflowing with colour, depth and expressive perfection as Venus. Vocally free-flowing and dynamic, Cole was ever-pleasing to hear and watch. And it seemed a long wait for her short but punchy Act 3 return after such a highlight she bestowed on Act 1.
Supremely gifted American soprano Amber Wagner’s generous range of spectacularly targeted soaring, meandering and plummeting notes accompanied the swirl of rich dessert-like tones she manifested in her affecting rendering of Elizabeth in a striking performance to remember.
The focus Wagner elicited from the audience on Elizabeth’s wrought agony and desperate hope in believing in Tannhäuser’s salvation near Act 2’s conclusion could not have been better conveyed, clearly stirring Vinke’s Tannhäuser with convincing effect.
In supporting roles, compelling Finnish bass Timo Riihonen brought authority and distinctiveness to Landgraf Hermann in sonorous and hefty voice and Samuel Dundas made an enormously fine impression as Wolfram, his burnished, virile-sounding baritone bejewelling Act 3’s “Song to the Evening Star” – in a hint at Elisabeth’s impending death – with noble, heartfelt force.
The remaining line-up of Minnesingers – Richard Anderson, Iain Henderson, Alexander Sefton and Thomas Strong – sang with attentive and harmonised strength. But it was Strong, recently joining Opera Australia in 2021 as Principal Young Artist and who covered world famous tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the company’s Lohengrin in 2022, who the ear gravitated to and who we hope to see a lot more of.
As the Shepherd, Jane Ede broke the air’s stillness with mellifluous elegance from the side balcony and the OA Chorus energised and elevated the storyline with divinely etched sound, the thirty-plus male contingent stationed at the rear (with females in the choir stalls), especially making the complexities of their music a magnificently united and gorgeously textured tapestry.
Fritzsch steered the score with confidence and thoughtfulness with all three acts injected with treasures of contrast and dramatic tension. Over 100 in number, Orchestra Victoria gleamed throughout but the music-making brought a particularly lush and liberated soundscape to Act’s 2 and 3. Numerous instrumental solos signed the score wonderfully.
So engaging the performance was, the music stands felt mostly invisible while sets and costumes didn’t seem missed. That said, Opera Australia won’t be in the good books if Melbourne audiences don’t get a big slice of the budget when season 2024 takes off.
Tannhäuser In Concert
Hamer Hall – Arts Centre Melbourne, St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 17 May 2023
A 2nd performance of Tannhäuser In Concert will be presented on Saturday 20 May 2023. For more information and bookings, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.
Image: Stefan Vinke as Tannhäuser, Amber Wagner as Elisabeth in Opera Australia’s 2023 production of Tannhäuser in concert at the Hamer Hall – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Paul Selar