Review by Jessica Flynn
Tannhäuser (pronounced TAHN-hoy-zer) is Wagner’s classic retelling of the classic German folklore of a mortal named Tannhäuser who is torn between two worlds: the sensual and pleasure-seeking Venusberg, ruled by the goddess Venus, and the world of humans.
Since the opera’s first show in 1845, it explores themes that continue to be relevant today that Opera Australia’s latest show at Hamer Hall breathes fresh life into with a phenomenal cast of local and international talent.
Opera Australia lets the artists shine in this rendition of Tannhäuser with a minimal stage setting, using only simple coloured roof lighting to signal a change in acts and mood and relying instead on the Orchestra and the singers to convey the earthly and mystical realms of the opera.
The Orchestra balanced between leading and accompanying throughout the performance, with credit to Conductor Johannes Fritzsch’s leadership (who was asked to support and learn this performance only three weeks ago!). The beginning of the first act set the tone with whimsical yet strong notes which allowed the audience to imagine the scenery purely from the instruments. The role of the orchestra shifted once the singers were introduced as they swung between scene setting and voicing the inner turmoil of our characters, particularly Tannhäuser through his many critical decision points.
We kicked off with a radiant performance from Anna-Louise Cole who played Venus. Her glittery dress was the perfect complement to her sultry and tempting characterisation, begging audiences to question why Tannhauser would ever dare to leave her.
Venus’s foil Elisabeth, played by Amber Wagner, the virtuous and loyal love interest of Tannhäuser, gave an emotionally-deep performance that pulled audiences into her inner thoughts. I found her scenes protecting Tannhäuser from society’s harsh words and threats particularly poignant and raw with the sting of unrequited love.
Tannhäuser, played by Stefan Vinke, was truly a leading man in the piece with a magnificent tenor that set the pace for the rest of the cast. His voice was powerful with a subtle control that evoked empathy for a man experiencing inner turmoil weighed by the heaviness of love and societal expectations.
The wonderful performances and comic relief provided by the minnesingers kept the atmosphere light and playful even through somber topics, although Samuel Dundas, playing Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Timo Riihonen, playing the Landgrave, delivered deep and powerful performances as they condemned Tannhäuser’s choices.
The accompanying chorus offered not only an outstanding vocal performance, but they also aided in breathing life into the broader environment of the performance with the all-male and all-female choruses sprinkled across the stage harmonising and contrasting at one with the plot.
Overall, I enjoyed that the production stayed true to its traditional roots and does not attempt to clumsily bring modernity into it. Instead, it relies on the timelessness of its plot in its depiction of the turmoils of unrequited love, singing contests, and the true meaning of salvation - motifs that will continue to stay relevant for generations.
Practically speaking, the show is four hours long (split into three parts) so be sure to grab a customary ice cream or a glass of sparkling from the wonderful hospitality team at Hamer Hall. Also note that while the show is sung in German, surtitles are provided so there’s no need to dust off any old textbooks!
Opera is an often overlooked and underappreciated art form in today’s fast-paced and overly-stimulating world, so take a chance on Tannhäuser even if you are a newbie to the scene as this is definitely the right show to dip your toe into the mystical world of Venusberg and opera itself.