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Melbourne Opera’s Tannhauser brings together an army of artists, big voices and a clear creative vision
Were many thinking Melbourne Opera was biting off more than it could chew in tackling a fully staged version of Richard Wagner’s grand romantic opera Tannhäuser? To that, taking over the huge Regent Theatre across the road from their usual home at the far smaller Athenaeum? At Sunday’s buzzing opening night, the boots were filled marvellously on both accounts.
Tannhäuser, like most of Wagner’s operatic output, requires an army of artists, big voices and a clear creative vision. Melbourne Opera Orchestra swelled to almost 60 primed musicians with a similar number filling out the rousing chorus of nobles, knights and pilgrims.
Conductor David Kram kept the music buoyant and sensitively tempered, singing generally excelled and director Suzanne Chaundy and her creative team obliged with a direct and assured staging.
Based on historical and mythological extracts, the story of the medieval minnesinger Tannhäuser is a journey through his psychological turmoil, caught between one world of societal strictures and another of sexual pleasures. Redemption doesn’t come easily. Amongst its many interpretations, Tannhäuser’s journey matters because it shakes our moral compass, whether influenced or not by religious or secular constraints.
Video designer Zoe Scoglio’s projections are instrumental as part of Christina Logan-Bell’s efficient set in vividly colouring worlds blurring dream and reality, seemingly through a looking glass, to create an impactful hyper reality of sorts. Eroticism and agitation abound in
Tannhäuser’s pleasure den, Venusberg, the Hall of Song appears like a grand extension of the Regent itself and the roadside scenes, backed by a mountainous outcrop formed by the nymphs of Venusberg, looms as a reminder of beauty and temptation.
Above it all, handsome Romanian tenor Marius Vlad tasted the fruit and trod the path in a magnificent and subtly nuanced performance as Tannhäuser. Vlad exerted richly expressive magnetism and empathic reading of the text without excessive power, the voice’s warm vibrato and healthy range taking him all the way to an achingly beautiful highlight, Act 3’s Rome Narrative.
From elegant princess to despairing lost soul, Herald Sun Aria winner Lee Abrahmsen never flinched in the face her role demands as Elizabeth. Impressing, even surprising, from the start of her Act 2 entrance and owning Elizabeth’s tenderness, assertion and pain with deeply emotive strength. Abrahmsen’s fulsome and agile soprano stood tall and sincere.
As Wolfram, Manfred Pohlenz’s appealing shadowy baritone complimented his friend Tannhäuser warmly but came disappointingly lost in Act 3’s “Song to the Evening Star”. All lithe and limb and secure in voice with a penetrating top, Sarah Sweeting swooned seductively as Venus. Eddie Muliaumaseali’i sonorously filled out Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia, and Michael Lampard projected with confidence and resonance as Biterolt.
In many respects, a sense of history felt created at this performance. Melbourne Opera now have the task ahead of adding to it.
Review by Paul Selar