Melbourne Opera made a terrific contribution to the Melbourne Ring Festival with their concert performance of Richard Wagner’s early operatic success, Rienzi. A blaze of stirring choruses and heroic solos, the glorious music of this Australian premiere swept over the capacity audience, transporting them to a bygone age.
The perfect opera for a concert presentation, Rienzi featured an extraordinary amount of chorus singing as well as plenty of evenly spread work for the principals. Seated on tiered levels, each member of the large ensemble was clearly visible, all dressed smartly in black tie and evening wear.
Resident Conductor Greg Hocking opened the event with a brief dedication to recently deceased Australian opera legends, bass Robert Allman and director Elke Neidhart.
For a little-known opera, the music was incredibly accessible and melodic, full of marches, hymns and processions. The scenes progressed briskly, and each of the five acts ended with a rousing finale. The plot centres on Cola Rienzi, a Roman Tribune who leads the people against the dominance of the nobles, only to end up out of favour, eventually killed in a fiery uprising.
Maestro Greg Hocking presided over an extra-large contingent of the Melbourne Opera Orchestra, enhanced even further with eight brass players spread between the two Juliet boxes for the triumphal march of act three. Orchestral playing was disciplined, well rehearsed and sumptuous in tone, with no less than four French Horns an asset in the regard.
Expert preparation was also made by Chorus Master Raymond Lawrence, with the Melbourne Opera Chorus sounding nothing short of superb. The female chorus delivered the lovely, unaccompanied chorus of Peace Lovers at the start of act two, which also featured a delightful solo from Anna-Louise Cole. The men had their chance to impress with act four’s melancholy chorus of Monks. The Chorus showed great focus and power throughout, the music coming forth at times like a great wall of sound, all the more magnificent to hear thanks to the wonderful opera acoustics of the Athenaeum Theatre.
Other featured roles were prominent noble Paolo Orsini, sung with impressive control by powerful bass Manfred Pohlenz, and papal legate Raimondo, sung with effortless grace by Matthew Thomas. Adrian Tamburini, as ill-fated noble Steffano Colonna, impressed with the distinct projection and volume of his striking bass voice.
Roger Howell brought his well-honed expertise and nimble, expressive baritone to the role of influential Roman citizen Cecco del Vecchio. Fellow citizen Baroncelli was sung with confidence and sweet tone by tenor Sam Sakker.
Acclaimed soprano Joanna Cole made a welcome appearance as Rienzi’s sister Irene. In a well-prepared, carefully modulated performance, Cole showed that her strong, glistening soprano has abundant beauty and lustre.
Another return to the stage of great significance was the thrilling appearance of renowned soprano Rosamund Illing. Looking exquisite in electric blue sequins, organza and silk, Illing was back where she belongs. Playing the trousers role of Irene’s ardent admirer Adriano, Illing thrilled the house with the exquisite act three aria “In seiner Blüte bleicht mein Leben.” Illing’s years of playing tragic heroines shone through as she expertly conveyed the horror of Adriano’s final moments, killed in a blaze while trying to rescue Irene and Rienzi.
As title character Rienzi, tenor Jason Wasley gave a carefully controlled performance, which built in power and depth as the evening progress. His climactic prayer “Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab” was a true highlight of the opera.
Given the performance in German, surtitles would have been very helpful, or even perhaps a brief introduction to the events of each act. Regardless, the beauty and power of the music transcended plot and character descriptions, the majesty of the sound conveying the feeling and spirit of the piece.
Rienzi in Concert was performed on Sunday 8 December 2013 at Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne.
Read Man in Chair’s previews of the Melbourne Ring Cycle operas, each with a dozen or so photos:
Photos: Robin Halls
This review published on Theatre People 9 December 2013