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”.