Opera Australia: Tannhäuser in Concert review

Musical quality is at a premium as Opera Australia assembles a mighty set of singers and musicians for Tannhäuser in Concert.

Presented as part the 2023 Opera Australia Melbourne season week, Tannhäuser in Concert allows Victorian lovers of Wagner, throughly whetted by the recent Melbourne Opera Bendigo Ring Cycle, to continue their appreciation of the grand composer’s work. Mention of the Bendigo Ring cannot pass without the comment that the season of four fully staged operas was produced by Melbourne Opera with no government funding while the heavily subsidised Opera Australia can manage just a single concert production. 

A highly accomplished pit orchestra, Orchestra Victoria takes centre stage for Tannhäuser in Concert, an opportunity that its sterling musicians must surely relish. Helmed by exacting maestro Johannes Fritzsch, the orchestra produces sumptuous, gorgeously expressive music. From the early highlight of the generous overture all the way through to the gentle Prelude to Act III and beyond, Fritzsch expertly shapes the music and draws excellent performances from individual musicians in featured solos. 

Director Shane Placentino delivers a clean and straightforward concert staging in which the principals enter and exit as required as required, saved of the usual opera-in-concert burden of remaining seated in full view. To the credit of Placentino and his strong cast, the emotional impact of the stirring opera is keenly felt, with glorious music and human drama intertwining for a highly satisfying performance. 

As is Wagner’s way, the first act provides an opportunity to really luxuriate into wonderfully romantic music. German Heldentenor Stefan Vinke in the title role is joined by elegant Australian soprano Anna-Louise Cole for the outpouring of passion, tinged with the regret, as Heinrich (known as Tannhäuser) seeks to return to his former life away from the hedonism of the cave of Venus (known as Venusberg).

Tireless and true, Vinke fills the capacious Hamer Hall with sturdy ringing tone. Ever committed to Heinrich’s torturous journey, Vinke imbues his ringing vocals with the full range of passion, longing, regret, and sorrow, preserving plenty of vocal energy for a highly memorable finale as Heinrich meets his fate in the bittersweet final scenes.

Shimmering in dark midnight blue, Cole gives Vinke’s Heinrich every reason to be tempted to continue to indulge, her delightful vocal performance making excellent use of her supple, creamy soprano. The final scene brings a welcome , albeit all too brief, return from Cole, completing a captivating performance. 

Heinrich manages to wrench himself from Venusberg and encounters a lone shepherd, beautifully sung by soprano Jane Ede standing out in the choir balcony wearing a siren-red dress. The musicality of Ede’s lovely voice shines vividly in this brief a cappella sequence. 

Seated in the rear of the stage, the voluminous male chorus reveal expert preparation and innate musical skill as they join the performance in striking style, singing as one in reverently hushed tone for the hymn “Zu dir wall ich, mein Jesus Christ” before building in power as the pilgrims draw closer. The excellent acoustics of Hamer Hall allow the quality of the 30+ voices to be heard with crisp precision, with a playful oboe accompaniment providing the finishing touch.  

Landgrave Hermann and the minstrels encounter Heinrich and urge him to return with them to society. In an interesting modern parallel, the brutally swift and scornful reaction of the townsfolk to the discovery of Heinrich’s period at Venusberg echoes the current tendency to condemn a person when a deviation from societal norms is uncovered. 

From her first voluptuous notes, American soprano Amber Wagner envelopes the audience in luxuriant sound. A singer of innate emotional intelligence, Wagner compellingly conveys the full dramatic arc of Elizabeth, from unbelieving joy at the return of her beloved Heinrich to the tormenting pain of defending him to the agony of fearing for his life as she foretells her own death. 

Displaying impressive maturity as a principal artist, Australian baritone Samuel Dundas makes a strong showing as Wolfram von Eschenbach. When Wolfram sings his courtly song in the contest, Dundas gives the rendition the full art song treatment in a finely calibrated performance; delicate accompaniment by harp completes the lovely moment. Displaying warmth and sensitivity of voice, Dundas makes for a strong scene partner to Wagner in act three, delivering a moving rendition of Wolfram’s final hymn “Wie Todesahnung Dämmrung deckt die Lande…O du mein holder Abendstern.”

Finnish bass Timo Riihonen is a commanding presence in the supporting role of Landgrave Hermann. Delivering the kind of the resounding power that appears to be simply effortless, Riihonen’s resounding voice rings out with affecting power.

While the featured sextet of Dundas, Rihonen, Richard Anderson, Thomas Strong, Iain Henderson, and Alexander Sefton is well balanced, the pure sweet voice of young tenor Strong is clearly heard, and future solo work from Strong is anticipated. 

As the song contest begins, the male chorus is joined by a female chorus for a grand total of some 60 singers. The majestic effect is further enhanced by a septet of additional trumpeters on the choir balcony. In act three, the male chorus further distinguishes themselves with an off-book performance of the Pilgrims’ Chorus “Beglückt darf nun dich, O Heimat, ich schauen” that has the audience wishing for more. The female chorus has their highlight as the voices of angels sharing the miracle of Heinrich’s all-too-late pardon. The chorus is a memorable highlight of Tannhäuser in Concert, with full credit to chorus master Paul Fitzsimon and the Opera Australia music staff. 

Well versed in Wagner, Melbourne opera lovers have one more opportunity to enjoy Tannhäuser in Concert. Attendance is highly recommended.

Tannhäuser in Concert plays again at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne on 20 May 2023. For tickets, click here.

Photos: Jeff Busby

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