Once again Melbourne Opera has proved that it is a company up for a challenge. After successful concert performances of Rienzi, another of Wagner’s operas neglected by local companies in recent times beckoned. A fully staged production of the1861 Paris version of Tannhäuser is a much more daunting task, but members of the creative team had already explored a number of production strategies in their imaginative use of video for Der Freischütz and this experience was put to excellent use for Tannhäuser.
Director Suzanne Chaundy and video designer Zoe Scoglio have teamed up with set designer Christina Logan-Bell and lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw to conjure up the dreamscape of Venusberg. Images of foaming water and a cave of writhing naked bodies contained a siren call of irresistible sensuality without being either distracting or offensive. Unlike Elke Neidhardt’s provocative nightmare vision of Venusberg, we enter into Tannhäuser’s rosy erotic world of addictive delights.
Using video might appear to be an easy way out of certain scenic difficulties until you see how poorly it can be handled. Last year’s Tristan and Isolde with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is a case in point: overly literal, tedious and distracting, the video sequences were a blight on the performance. By contrast, Victorian Opera’s videos for Der fliegende Holländer were often exhilarating and the result of a great deal of technical and imaginative effort. Fortunately, Melbourne Opera’s collaborations have avoided the pitfalls. In addition to a compelling portrait of Venusberg, the depiction of the Hall of Song was an unambiguous success. When the curtain rose on Act 2 the splendour of the Hall of Song was enough to provoke a murmur of appreciation and a burst of enthusiastic applause. And this raises another element contributing to the success of this production: the venue.
For all the charms of the Athenaeum Theatre, the fact remains that, if you want to mount grand opera, the small stage area and the lack of an adequate pit for the orchestra are considerable limitations. With the Regent Theatre both of these problems are overcome and the charm, in all its amazingly ornate glory, remains. The video projections extended the architecture of the theatre with its golden columns extremely effectively and the stage was flooded with a light that lifted the spirits. As for other scenes, the set was functional and served to emphasise various aspects of interpretation.
Those who are accustomed to attending the Regent for musicals might have been surprised to hear just how good the acoustics are without amplification. When a golden Lee Abrahmsen made her first appearance to sing one of the most rapturously joyful arias of them all, “Elizabeth’s Greeting”, “Dich, teure Halle, grüss ich wieder “(Dear hall, I greet thee once again), the scene could not have been set more appropriately. Of course, Abrahmsen’s lyric soprano has sufficient power to fill a much less sympathetic auditorium and this abundance coupled with beauty of tone and a radiant presence was enough to inspire yet more applause. She was also the recipient of a third round for one of the highlights of the evening: the ensemble where she sings in defense of her beloved outcast with a very fine male septet indeed: Marius Vlad (Tannhäuser), Manfred Pohlenz (Wolfram von Eschinbach), Eddie Muliaumaseali’i (Landgrave), and Minnesingers Jason Wasley (Walter von der Vogelweide), Michael Lampard (Biterolf), Geoffrey Harris and Roger Howell.
Just as Elizabeth personifies sacred love, Venus personifies the profane version for which Tannhäuser is reviled. Looking a little like the red-haired temptress from Game of Thrones, Sarah Sweeting made a beguiling Venus, singing and acting with seductive allure.
Ultimately the opera stands or falls on the quality of the singer in the title role. Romanian tenor Marius Vlad has a significant list of credits to his name and it is no wonder; he is a very impressive singer indeed. Technically secure and with excellent projection throughout the range he is also a convincing actor. You were not left with the feeling that his journey to Rome and back was more of a gourmet tour than a penitential search for forgiveness. He did look haggard, distraught and in defiant despair.
It is just one of those operatic anomalies that the tenor doesn’t get to sing one of the most famous arias in the operatic repertoire – let alone Wagnerian. Baritone Manfred Pohlenz was hard pressed to invest this truly magical aria with the legato finesse needed, but was much more effective in earlier and following scenes, where he appeared to be more relaxed.
The other Tannhäuser hit is “The Pilgrims’ Chorus”. It is debatable whether singing this chorus in English allowed for the best result. This choice did correspond with an aim of making the production more universal in character, but the chorus was not well blended as they made their sprightly way across the stage after an arduous journey to and from Rome. On the other hand, voices for the offstage, Act 2 and final choruses were very well integrated and the larger stage meant that more singers could be easily accommodated.
Under the experienced baton of David Kram, the enlarged orchestra also made a better integrated more sonorous sound in this venue. Although the string tone was sometimes underpowered, the brass made a very good showing, particularly in the Act 2 fanfare, and Sam Ramirez did a great job on the difficult harp part when featured on stage in Act 2.
This is a fascinating opera encompassing ideas that Wagner struggled to articulate until his death. One feature that stands out is the power of song. Both Venus and Elizabeth are drawn to Tannhäuser because of his singing. And yet Wagner gives that most beautiful of songs to the good, caring but rejected Wolfram. Whatever the ambiguities (so well captured by Scoglio’s morphing projections) and mysteries of this opera, as Tannhäuser struggles to reconcile the sacred and profane, a quality performance such as this is bound to stimulate interest and admiration.
Once again, Melbourne Opera has excelled itself to provide a rewarding experience on many levels.
Heather Leviston attended Melbourne Opera’s performance of Tannhäuser at the Regent Theatre 0n August 14.
The production pictures were taken at rehearsal and supplied by Melbourne Opera.