Melbourne Opera’s terrific new production of Tannhäuser rewards audiences with magnificent music and powerful performances by a cast of over 130 singers and musicians, superbly directed by Suzanne Chaundy.
Richard Wagner’s masterpiece explores the struggle between saintliness and sin, virtue and vice. Tannhäuser is a minnesinger, a lyric poet and singer, who has been beckoned to the subterranean realm of Venus. He’s been dwelling there in a life of sin with the Goddess of Love, but he misses the human struggle and begs Venus to set him free. Upon returning to the world he once knew, he becomes reacquainted with the other minnesingers and saintly Princess Elisabeth, whose heart he won, and then broke, when he disappeared to Venus’s pleasure cave.
At times it seems like little is happening, but much of the drama is psychological. The audience sees the torments in the characters, and Tannhäuser’s own struggle lies in his conflicting desires for purity and pleasures of the flesh.
The principle cast is absolutely fabulous. Romanian tenor Marius Vlad is sensational as Tannhäuser; Lee Abrahmsen brings solemnity and emotion to the role of Elisabeth; Manfred Pohlenz is a kind and sensitive Wolfram; and bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i melts the theatre with the rich timbre of his voice.
The opera is almost entirely sung in German, except for the chorus of pilgrims who sing in English. This is somewhat jarring, and I found myself working to discern the English from the German, which is often sung concurrently; but when they do all come together in chorus, their voices blend in beautiful harmony, particularly the satisfying final crescendo.
The set involves a tiered stage with intriguing landscapes digitally projected in the background, an interesting and effective way to move between realms; and the costumes are plain but elegant, and their simplicity allows the audience to remain engaged with the rich characters.
Melbourne Opera is going from strength to strength and have once again given audiences an opportunity to see an opera that’s rarely performed in Australia.
Tannhäuser has a limited run, so I highly recommend you rush out and get tickets, which are fantastic value for such a brilliant performance in the opulent Regent Theatre.
Ara Sarafian is a writer and editor. He’s been published in The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings and The Conversation. He works as an online editor for the ABC.
Tannhäuser runs 14–17 August at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne, and 28 August at Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University (sung in German with English surtitles). To find out more and book tickets, visit the Melbourne Opera website. The venues are wheelchair accessible.