Nina Stemme, the Swedish Wagner soprano du jour, made such an impression in a concert last year with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra (and Stuart Skelton) that this year’s return match was sold out almost as soon as it was announced. This time, she was joined by Swedish baritone John Lundgren, and the orchestra was again conducted by Marko Letonja. The TSO is normally more of a chamber orchestra averaging sixty players, but on this occasion it was augmented with extras, including 23 from the Australian National Academy of Music (Melbourne), bringing the total number of players to ninety. This included instruments rarely heard in Tasmania such as Wagner tubas, bass trumpet, bass trombone.

Nina Stemme and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
© Brad Harris

The all-Wagner programme was structured around excerpts from Der Ring des Nibelungen, specifically parts of Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3 Scene 3 of Die Walküre before the interval and Götterämmerung Act 3 Scenes 2 and 3 as the finale. Immediately after the interval, we had Der fliegende Holländer overture and monologue “Die Frist ist um”, presumably to give Lundgren a bit more to do, which he brilliantly did.

The narrative of the Ring was explicated by surtitles, also used to provide English translations of the German text. While this was a concert performance, the drama was highlighted not only by the interaction between the singers, but some stunning staging effects provided by Swedish lighting designer Bengt Gomér. For the final scene of Die Walküre, Brünnhilde walked from the front of the stage to the centre of the orchestra and, back turned, she was illuminated in red as the Magic Fire music took hold. Similarly, in the Immolation Scene which concluded the programme, red light and smoky stuff suffused all as the funeral pyre started to flame up, switching to a cooler blue for the Rhinemaidens’ music.

Marko Letonja, Nina Stemme and John Lundgren with the Tasmanian SO
© Brad Harris

As to the music, one could hardly have hoped for better. Stemme’s soprano, vibrant and powerful, filled the hall. Hers is not the focused laser-beam of Birgit Nilsson, but a much fuller and more coloured sound, easily riding over the large orchestra as she brought to life Brünnhilde’s varied moods and experiences, from the exultant warrior maiden to the noble declaration of the funeral pyre. Lundgren was an excellent foil and equal in vocal and acting ability, a firm resonant sound allied to a commanding presence, regretfully tender as he farewells his favourite daughter. 

 Letonja’s direction of the TSO was equally commanding, bringing out the nuances of the score – no mean feat with a specially assembled cohort, from delicate oboe sounds to satisfyingly fat brass segments. The rendition of Siegfried’s Funeral Music was as good as I have heard. The overall intensity of the whole concert held the audience in rapt silence throughout. It is wonderful to see Wagner being well served in Australia in the 21st century after the previous fifty years of borderline neglect.