Photos – Robin J Halls
Not seen here since the early 90s, Richard Wagner’s 1845 opera Tannhäuser enjoys a great big production by Melbourne Opera, directed by Suzanne Chaundy and staged in the Regent Theatre where it's very much at home. The story of Tannhäuser involves a silly old saw pitting good woman (chaste) against bad woman (sexual), and where only the sacrifice of the good woman can save the hero’s soul from eternal damnation, etc. Of course this is an allegorical treatment of the spiritual life contrasted with the material but even so it still reads as tiresome and sad, if not downright misogynistic. You have to put all that old nonsense aside and just enjoy the music.
Tannhäuser the man is a Minnesinger (a German singer/lyric poet who sings of courtly love) who, before tootling off to linger in Venustown with the goddess of love (fabulous Alto Sarah Sweeting), had captured the heart of the pure Elizabeth (wonderful Soprano Lee Abrahmsen) with his vocals. When Tannhäuser eventually returns to his home town and reveals where he’s been, the town seniors send him on a pilgrimage to Rome. But not even the pope can absolve him.
Musically Tannhäuser is thrilling, and there’s nothing to disappoint here. Fine Tenor Marius Vlad has come to Melbourne from Hungary to perform the role of Tannhauser, one he performs often. You sense how at ease he is in every respect. Bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i is a stand out presence and plays a character with a terrific title – Landgrave of Thuringia. If the overtures remind you of film scores from early years of cinema, this is no accident as early cinematic music was much influenced by Wagner, especially the well-known pieces from this work – the Overture, Ode to the Evening Star, The Pilgrims’ Chorus and Elizabeth’s Greeting and Prayer.
The opera starts with long video sequences (by Zoe Scoglio) of water coursing and flooding in kaleidoscopic fashion to represent the goddess’s domain but aesthetically this video element is at odds with the later segments. Although the opera is in German with English surtitles the populous chorus in this production sing its bits in English; there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for this departure. David Kram conducts the Melbourne Opera Orchestra. The brass section and harp are allowed on stage for one formal scene where it’s almost as though the Regent itself is re-created in the set. Costuming is a bit all over the place, with old and modern sitting uneasily together in this reviewer’s opinion, and I’ll admit to not loving the look of the whole thing. But nothing can detract from the music and performances.
Melbourne Opera presents
Director Suzanne Chaundy
Regent Theatre, Melbourne 14, 17 and 20 August 2016
Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University 28 August 2016