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.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby
Jim Breen reviewed Tannhäuser in Concert, presented by Opera Australia at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on May 17, 2023.