This review may contain spoilers.
Our state’s opera scene has never looked stronger or healthier.
For many years, veteran companies like Lyric Opera, Opera Australia, and Victorian Opera have entertained, enthralled and treated audiences, satisfying every taste with wide-ranging repertoires featuring both traditional and contemporary fare.
Melbourne Opera has been in operation since 2003.
Following their triumphant season of Tannhauser in 2016, last Monday the organisation struck gold yet again with another Richard Wagner masterpiece.
Told in three gripping acts, Lohengrin is a star-crossed tale of love, deception, betrayal, and ultimately, heartbreak. This epic, romance-drama also employs a handful of exciting and unexpected, supernatural twists and turns. Lohengrin is particularly renowned for its wedding march (featured in act two), as well as a vibrant third act overture.
At four hours in length (including two twenty minute intervals), the opera has rarely been performed here. Previous local productions of note were staged in 1958, 1985, and 2002.
Taking these points into consideration, Melbourne Opera’s commitment to their innovative yet respectful rendering must be applauded. In this instance, Suzanne Chaundy directs proceedings with rigorous sensitivity and regal flair.
Further still, the star-studded cast is supported by an eighty-seven strong chorus, and accompanied by a fifty-seven piece orchestra. (David Kram and Greg Hocking have been credited with conducting.)
The Regent Theatre on Collins Street could not be a more suitable or spectacular choice of venue. Melbourne Opera, it must be said, takes complete advantage of this architecturally atmospheric space.
The orchestra plays in a pit located directly in the front of the stage. Adding to the elegant sense of occasion, the horn and trumpet sections, however, have been situated in two side boxes. This surround-sound choice can’t help but draw the audience into the story.
Sumptuous costume design from Lucy Wilkins is exemplary across the board. Capturing the tenth century majesty of the piece, characters are easily identified and defined by her rich colour and fabric choices. Of particular note are the intricate ensembles created for the six main leads, with Lohengrin and Elsa being the prime stand-outs.
Lighting design (by Lucy Birkingshaw), set design (by Christina Logan-Bell), and video design (by Yandell Walton) all combine to make this an immersive and seamless experience.
In recent weeks I have reviewed two shows (Macbeth for the Melbourne Theatre Company and 9 to 5 for PLOS Musical Productions) which each used a high degree of electronic and animated scenic design.
Where most works use traditional, physical sets and props to bring their story to life, large-scale animated backdrops create an entirely different viewpoint. In Lohengrin, this choice is at its most effective, particularly during act two.
Without giving too much away, the visual centerpiece is the arrival and departure of the swan. This key moment alone, is almost worth the price of admission.
Supporting the German sung score, a display board positioned above the proscenium provides surtitles in English.
As Lohengrin, Marius Vlad injects the title role with noble confidence and ethereal strength.
He is musically matched by Helena Dix (as Elsa). Dix also displays an impressive range of emotions in line with her character’s challenging journey.
The two villains of the piece, Hrolfur Saemundsson (as Friedrich) and Sarah Sweeting (as Ortrud), are also convincing in their plight to overthrow Elsa and the kingdom.
Eddie Muliaumaseali’I (as Heinrich) and Phillip Calcagno (as Heerufer) are excellent in their respective, supporting roles.
In Melbourne Opera’s capable hands, the legendary story builds both in dramatic intensity and musical power, culminating in a climactic third act finale.
It should be noted, keeping in line with traditional operatic staging, none of the actors use body microphones.
With few expenses spared, this is a full-scale journey on every technical and artistic level. Meaning, the ambitious creative team’s attention to detail is nothing short of breathtaking.
Lohengrin plays for a strictly-limited four performance season at the Regent Theatre (August 7, 10 & 12) and the Robert Blackwood Hall (August 19).