After making the metaphorical leap across Collins Street last year for Tannhäuser, Melbourne Opera returns to the Regent Theatre for its next shot at the grand Wagnerian experience, Lohengrin. What this production may lack visually – due to a limitation of budget more than imagination – it makes up for with splendid musicality, led by some principal singers of considerable talent.
Last year’s Tannhäuser, Romanian Marius Vlad, was vocally and dramatically assured in the title role. There was never the slightest strain in his silky tenor, which seemed a little too lyrical for a Wagnerian hero, but ultimately made perfect sense during Lohengrin’s Act III revelation about his spiritual, even magical nature. Vlad brought an ethereal solemnity to this aria (Höchstes Vertrau’n), which proved to be an opening night highlight.
Helena Dix was also outstanding as Elsa. She made her absurdly innocent, passive character a sympathetic one through stillness, shy looks and, in particular, a pure voice rich with emotion. Dix has a powerful dramatic soprano, which easily cut through the orchestra and chorus, but there is also a delightful sweetness to her voice, evident in softer passages.
Icelandic baritone Hrólfur Sæmundsson and mezzo Sarah Sweeting were also in good form as the nemesis couple Telramund and Ortrud, especially together early in Act II, when they commanded an almost empty stage. Sæmundsson’s warm, confident voice and tortured interpretation was at its best and, although vocally a little uneven through the performance, Sweeting was the full package here, forcefully manipulating her stage husband with a dramatic voice and flashes of shapely leg.
Arguably she overdid the melodrama, but perhaps only for those fortunate to be seated toward the front of this big auditorium, and in my view Wagner’s silly plots and characters sometimes demand a little excess.
Key among the supporting cast was Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, whose King Heinrich had gravitas and (though slightly diminished in Act III) a noble bass, while Phillip Calcagno revealed a baritone of handsome clarity as Heerufer.
The substantial chorus was excellent, singing with fullness and nuance, and moving about the stage confidently. There was a pleasing sense of personality about the group too, with one man in particular revealing a definite yet unobtrusive character.
Sensitively conducted by David Kram, the orchestra was accomplished, notably the massed strings’ shimmering lightness. Trumpet fanfares were also very effective, as the musicians played from the boxes adjacent to the proscenium, elevating the aural theatricality.
The stage – so much bigger than at Melbourne Opera’s usual home, the Athenæum – was embraced by director Suzanne Chaundy. She arranged and moved her cast intelligently around Christina Logan-Bell’s sparse set: essentially a cluster of steps fixed at the centre, and a massive tree branch up high during the first and third acts.
Yandell Walton’s dynamic video projections added visual depth and drama. The moody skies of acts one and three formed vast, realistic backdrops, but Act II’s chunky CGI Gothic architecture didn’t convince until the eventual virtual dawn made the golden stone come alive, as it were. Lohengrin’s swan, which can look absurd, was beautifully conjured as ghostly video projected through a curtain of smoke.
Lucy Birkinshaw skilfully lit the stage without interfering with, or seemingly being hindered by, these projections. The follow-spot was occasionally rather wonky though. Costumes reflected Lohengrin’s setting: the Germanic lands around 900AD. The coexistence of Christian and Norse culture is evident in Lucy Wilkins’ mix of rough Viking-inspired designs and more refined early Medieval styles.
Although there was a degree of glamour about the principals, and some pretty use of flower headdress among the female chorus for the wedding scenes, a small budget was clearly stretched very thin across the large cast. There was only one costume change – a bridal gown for Helena Dix – and the chorus wore simple designs made of cheap materials, and what looked like op-shop oddments.
However, Lohengrin’s humble costumes were but a minor distraction from what was, overall, a satisfying production marked by some excellent singing. Melbourne Opera should be congratulated for once again delivering so much with such limited resources (it receives no government funding).
Reviewer Patricia Maunder attended Melbourne Opera’s performance of Lohengrin at the Regent Theatre on 7 August 2017.
Editor’s Note: conductor David Kram shows another side of his musicality as the composer of a forthcoming event, https://www.classicmelbourne.com.au/peace-cantata-john-monash/ which also features the singer Eddie Muliaumaseali’i.