Johannes Fritzsch
Opera Australia Chorus
Orchestra Victoria
20 May 2023
Hamer Hall Melbourne
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannTimo Riihonen
TannhäuserStefan Vinke
Wolfram von EschenbachSamuel Dundas
Walther von der VogelweideThomas Strong
BiterolfRichard Anderson
Heinrich der SchreiberIain Henderson
Reinmar von ZweterRichard Anderson
ElisabethAmber Wagner
VenusAnna-Louise Cole
Ein junger HirtAgnes Sarkis

Opera Australia was careful to label this production “Tannhäuser in Concert”. Opera is essentially a combination of music and staged drama, and a performance of the music alone, however well it may be done, is inevitably stripped of much of the drama. This is not to condemn the practice – I have attended many concert performances of operas, and indeed have sung in a couple – but they need to be seen and assessed in their own right. To a certain extent it can be compared with a recording or broadcast, but there the experience is totally aural.

Performing Tannhäuser in a concert format was always going to be something of a challenge. As with all Wagner’s earlier operatic works, it is in the mid-19th century tradition with large active choruses and extended casts. An oratorio-like treatment may simply not work that well. Did it in this case? Well my feelings are a bit mixed.

First to the musical aspects. Here things were quite clear – it was a very, very good performance of Wagner’s score. We had an expanded Orchestra Victoria released from the confines of a pit and able to give an expansive account of the rich and complex music in ideal concert conditions. I don’t think I’ve heard the orchestral part performed so well. Johannes Fritzsch’s direction was sensitive, precise and inspiring throughout. Having full symphonic resources: nine violas, eight cellos, etc. etc. certainly helped.

The soloists, I hesitate to call them “the cast”, were also outstanding. In the title role, German Heldentenor Stefan Vinke was excellent. It is a difficult part to carry off and not helped at all by the lack of staging. Despite this, he shone in his performance. Finnish baritone Timo Riihonen was the Landgraf, and he too was excellent in that dark and restrained part. I was particularly impressed by Samuel Dundas in the central role of Wolfram von Eschenbach. I first heard and saw him in the 2009 Victorian Opera production of Don Giovanni and have followed his performances with a lot of interest. He too was excellent, and his “O du, mein holder Abendstern” in Act 3, one of Wagner’s rare traditional arias, was very good indeed.

The role of Elisabeth was sung by American soprano Amber Wagner, who has been a regular performer in Australia in recent years. I could not fault the quality and strength of her performance, although I felt at times she was perhaps a little too strong for the frailty of Elisabeth’s character. Venus was sung by rising local star Anna-Louise Cole and it was another excellent performance. She is to sing Brünnhilde in the Ring in Brisbane later this year, and I am very much looking forward to hearing her again there.

I must also mention the OA Chorus. Tannhäuser possibly makes more use of the chorus than any other Wagner opera, and they have some of its most memorable music (my first experience of his music was as a newly-broken-in tenor in “The Pilgrim’s Chorus” in my school choir.) Again, a very satisfying performance despite their being confined to the choir stalls.

So, the musical aspects were excellent. What of the drama and staging? I confess that I came away with the feeling that parts of it were a bit empty. In part this is inevitable with a concert performance of an opera, but I felt that the very nature of Tannhäuser tended to amplify the feeling of loss when the staged elements are absent.

For many the take-away memories of Tannhäuser are the three big musical scenes: the bacchanal in Act 1, the arrival of the guests in Act 2, and the chorus of returning pilgrims in Act 3. It was here that I had a strong feeling of loss. The bacchanal was simply an orchestral piece – very well played of course – but stripped of much of its relevance. The eventual arrival of Venus in an evening dress to stand at the front did not exactly make up for it. Similarly, the large arrival scene, with the on-stage trumpets relegated to the balconies and the “guests” static and singing in the background, was a bit lacking. It was the same with the returning pilgrims: we heard them but that was all. They were rather disconnected from the people waiting to see them.

Overall, I enjoyed this “in concert” performance very much, essentially for the musical aspects. Yes, the drama was lacking, and in some ways it epitomized OA’s treatment of Victorians in 2023, with its quite unnecessary and unwarranted abandonment of fully-staged operatic productions.

JIm Breen | 20th May, 2023


The slow-beating heart of German Romantic Opera

Tannhäuser, one of Richard Wagner’s most acclaimed works, stands as a captivating testament to the composer’s mastery of the opera genre. With its sweeping score, poetic libretto and compelling characters, this four-act opera takes, or rather attempts to take, its audience on an unforgettable journey through themes of love, redemption and the eternal struggle between passion and purity.

Tannhäuser tells the story of the eponymous knight and poet, torn between his earthly desires and his quest for spiritual salvation. The recent production of Tannhäuser at Hamer Hall by Opera Australia, directed by Shane Placentino and conducted by Johannes Fritzsch, features an exceptional musical score that forms the backbone of the performance. The opera opens with a mesmerizing overture that sets the tone for the grandeur that lies ahead. From the very beginning, the orchestra showcases its virtuosity, creating a sonic landscape that effortlessly transitions between tender melodies, explosive crescendos, and intricate motifs that foreshadow the dramatic events to come. The orchestra demonstrates a deep understanding of the score’s nuances, delivering a captivating and emotionally resonant performance with rich harmonies, sweeping melodies and powerful choral arrangements that bring Wagner’s composition to life. The vocal performances in this rendition of Tannhäuser are also nothing short of extraordinary. The lead roles of Tannhäuser, played by Stefan Vinke, and Elisabeth, played by Amber Wagner, demand exceptional range and both singers do justice to their parts by showcasing impressive vocal skills and displaying control, expression and a genuine connection to the music. The ensemble cast brings forth a remarkable array of voices, with both Anna-Louise Cole as the divine Venus and Timo Riihonen as the wise Hermann, offering nuanced interpretations of their respective characters.

However, despite the musical brilliance, the production suffers from a lack of compelling visual design in the sets, costumes and overall staging. The sets appear unimaginative and simplistic, lacking the grandeur and visual spectacle that could have heightened the dramatic impact. Similarly, the costumes seem uninspired, failing to capture the essence of the characters or the time period. The overall staging lacks a cohesive visual concept, resulting in a disconnect between the performers and their surroundings. One of the most disappointing aspects of the production, however, is the inconsistency and poor timing of the surtitles. At times, they do not align with the lyrics or are significantly delayed, making it challenging to follow the German opera unfolding on stage. This mismatch between the surtitles and the actual performance creates a barrier to fully understanding and engaging with the production.

Moreover, the content of the opera itself is a problem. It falls short on relevance and accessibility. Given its historical context, Tannhäuser’s themes and narratives feel distant and disconnected from contemporary audiences. The societal norms, political landscape and cultural sensibilities have evolved significantly since its creation, but the opera struggles to resonate with modern viewers and fails to address the pressing issues and concerns of today’s society.

As the opera starts, we encounter the exchange between Tannhäuser and Venus. The libretto in this scene is a poetic marvel, delving deep into the human psyche and exploring complex moral dilemmas. Anticipating an intellectually stimulating experience, I mentally prepare myself, donning my metaphorical thinking cap as the opera unfolds. And then everything goes pear-shaped as this opera turns very religious, very fast. In exploring the themes of morality, pain and human mortality, this opera just devolves into the average 19th century obsession with lust and purity. To put it crudely, it becomes painfully evident that this opera was written by a white man in the 1800s.

While revered by many as a seminal work of German Romantic opera, Tannhäuser unfortunately falls short of its lofty ambitions and fails to deliver a truly satisfying experience. While it showcases Wagner’s innovative approach to music and storytelling, the opera is plagued by a convoluted and outdated plot of excessive length. While the narrative weaves together themes of love, spirituality, and the ‘struggle’ between sensuality and purity, the opera’s intricate layers often result in a confusing and disjointed plot that can be challenging for audiences to follow. However, the musical score of Tannhäuser, executed by the orchestra and performers, is undoubtedly the highlight of the production. Their performances elevate the experience, capturing the essence of Tannhäuser’s grandeur and complexity. Regrettably, the visual design of this production falls short of complementing the exceptional musical score. The lack of clear character development further exacerbates the issue, making it difficult to empathize with or fully understand the motivations of the protagonists.

Tannhäuser remains a cornerstone of the German Romantic opera tradition, showcasing Wagner’s visionary approach to music, drama, and storytelling. While its interpretation of the themes of desire, faith and redemption may no longer resonate with modern audiences, its majestic score and richly layered libretto makes it a masterpiece. For those seeking an immersive operatic experience, Tannhäuser is an unforgettable choice. However, if you wish to delve into the contemporary themes of morality and the depths of human psyche, Tannhäuser is not for you.

Towards the end of the opera, my companion and I scanned the many grey-haired audience members seated in front of us and wondered if the opera is dying. While Tannhäuser undoubtedly holds historical and cultural significance, it is important to approach it with a critical eye. While it may appeal to die-hard Wagner enthusiasts or those seeking a deep dive into German Romantic opera, it is definitely not the most accessible or enjoyable choice for modern audiences and the casual operagoer.

Anushka Singh | 15 Jun 2023

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
256 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 364 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (ABC Classics) of a concert performance