David Kram
Melbourne Opera Chorus and Orchestra
17 August 2016
Regent Theatre Melbourne
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
HermannEddie Muliaumaseali’i
TannhäuserMarius Vlad
Wolfram von EschenbachManfred Pohlenz
Walther von der VogelweideJason Wasley
BiterolfMichael Lampard
Heinrich der SchreiberGeoffrey Harris
Reinmar von ZweterRoger Howell
ElisabethLee Abrahmsen
VenusSarah Sweeting
Ein junger HirtHarry Hendel
Stage directorSuzanne Chaundy
Set designerChristina Logan-Bell
TV directorGreg Hocking

Tannhäuser brings a new dimension to Melbourne Opera

Melbourne Opera, a small company with energy and vision, has mounted a rather grand production of Tannhäuser in Melbourne’s large, opulent Regent Theatre, usually home to such shows as The Lion King and We Will Rock You rather than Wagnerian operas. They have done it well, engaging an impressive cast and an expanded orchestra, and employing exciting visual effects. The branding for this production has used a large latin cross for the T of Tannhäuser, emphasising a particular theme of this opera.

Venusberg, home of sensual desires and actions, was an illusion – created by a rear screen with visually stimulating fractals of naked body shapes. Dwarfed by these images were alto Sarah Sweeting’s Venus, sounding like a seasoned temptress, and tenor Marius Vlad, a rich voiced Tannhäuser, expressing boredom and fed-up-ness with his time in the grotto. The moment he declared that his salvation lay in the Virgin Mary, the Venusberg image dissolved into a view of rugged mountains, with a line of straggling pilgrims heading for Rome, powerfully proclaiming their hope for salvation in the glorious Pilgrim Song, rich voices blending inspiringly, provoking in Tannhäuser the desire to “expiate his guilt”.

Act II began awesomely, with an impressive visual of a grand song hall, not unlike the theatre in which we were seated, and a delightful grand entrance by Elisabeth, sweet sonorous soprano Lee Abrahmsen, full voiced and joyfully proclaiming: “Dich, teure Halle”. She sang facing the audience directly, with a confidence that captured all. While every singer sang well, it was the voice of Abrahmsen, whose deep emotive sparkle constantly reaching great heights, was the highlight of the evening. In the background Wolfram (rich baritone Manfred Pohlenz) sang impressively with well controlled expression. Landgrave Hermann, (Eddie Muliaumaseali’i), delivered in spades with his rich sonorous bass voice and expressive tenderness towards Elisabeth. Even his announcing to the minnesingers that their forthcoming song contest would be the challenge to fathom the nature of love sounded exciting.

In this production I was struck by the enormity of the consequences of Tannhäuser’s ‘sin’ in mentioning the pleasures of Venusberg in such noble company, particularly the pain and hurt it caused Elisabeth (the Landgrave called it ‘a fearful misdeed’). I gained a new appreciation of her courage in defending him against the swords of fellow Minnesingers and the threats of the assembled knights. Maybe it was because Martin Luther had lived for some time in the Wartburg Castle that Wagner chose to allude to so much Lutheran theology of sin, repentance, punishment, salvation and the hope, expressed compassionately by Elisabeth, that “our Redeemer also died for [Tannhaüser]”. At the close of the act, we were treated to a delightfully sung reprise of the Pilgrim Song, magnificently resonating through the theatre as male voices again entered and crossed the stage. This was the signal for the Landgrave to lead everyone in demanding Tannhäuser join them. With a passionate cry of “Nach Rom!” he exited, to the relief of all who remained, who then echoed the cry.

Under the baton of talented David Kram, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra was at its best in the gentler sections, although at times I thought the music sounded thin. However, the third act prelude was remarkably inspiring, conveying a rich sense of feeling and meditation, recapturing many of the opera’s themes. The scene opened with a powerful image of Elisabeth kneeling in prayer before a small cross encircled with candles. Again, the stirring Pilgrim Song was heard as the pilgrims returned “telling of grace and mercy received”. Elisabeth, like a traveller at an airport carousel searching for her luggage, grew increasingly agitated at Tannhäuser’s failure to return. With desperation in her voice, and with great solemnity, she earnestly appealed to the Virgin to take her to heaven where her prayer might be more persuasive.

As Elisabeth stumbled off the stage, Pohlenz’s Wolfram, who had looked on from the side, came to the centre and, as the moon cut through the gathering storm clouds, faced the audience like one delivering a set piece, and powerfully began his moving “O du, mein holder Abendstern”. He sang splendidly, the orchestra complementing him magnificently. Then, as he listened to Tannhäuser’s sad and mournful account of his experience in Rome, now making him desperate to return to Venusberg where he might find some acceptance, Wolfram sang with passion, attempting to prevent him doing so. Tannhäuser had become a broken, desperate man, and Vlad was able to convey this most effectively. As he was about to succumb, the funeral procession carrying Elisabeth’s coffin arrived. He fell onto it, praying “Heilige Elisabeth, bitte für mich!”, and died.

The whole cast then gathered to conclude, with great emotion: “The grace of God is granted to the penitent: now he enters into the bliss of heaven”.

Brian Angus | 18 August 2016


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.

LIZA DEZFOULI | 17 AUGUST 2016 © Australian Stage Online


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 | 19th August, 2016

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