A few hours before Nina Stemme Returns, I browsed through my Facebook newsfeed. I stopped to glance at a status update from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, touting the event-to-come as “one of our biggest concerts ever” and “part of TSO history”. It continued to boast an experience with “the opera superstar of her generation”.
Nina Stemme. Photographs courtesy of Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
(Stemme returned – as per this concert’s namesake – after her 2016 performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which won her and the TSO a Helpmann for Best Symphony Orchestra Concert; and which your humble reviewer gave a rare 5 stars.) Such bold claims before a concert can be risky, and often used to generate hype. But in this case, the excitement was justified as Nina Stemme Returns delivered nothing short of the TSO’s predictions.
There was an unusual buzz in the foyer before the concert, and an observer may have noticed the “who’s who” of the Australian arts scene dotted among the crowd. Upon entering the hall itself could be heard the blast of about a hundred musicians simultaneously warming up for Wagner. (It sounded just as you’d probably imagine.) The hall was packed with particularly well-dressed concertgoers for a night out in Hobart; and the stage was very nearly overflowing with its musicians. In fact, some of the wooden acoustic panels had been removed from behind the players, leaving a smidgeon of extra room for the two harpists, 20-or-so lower strings, and enormous brass section. (I suspect a few elbows got in the way among the body of violinists and violists!) The orchestra was positioned under well-placed spotlights thanks to Swedish set designer Bengt Gomér. The light cast a haze that floated through the air for the duration of the concert, and made an enormous difference to the feeling of the space.
Maestro Marko Letonja emerged in silhouette before taking to the podium and beginning an excerpt of Act II scene I, Wotan and Brünnhilde of Die Walküre. There were surtitles, which first hinted at the plot in an attempt to set the scene – but they skipped away in error and were unreadable. Nevertheless, when time for the libretto, it was appropriately aligned with the voices and we were able to follow along – first with inexorable bass-baritone John Lundgren. Stemme’s entrance was first marked by her voice – not yet visible, she called “Hojotoho!” from somewhere left of the stage with enough power to penetrate the hall and surpass the full orchestra. This built anticipation for the moment she finally appeared – and when she did, it was gripping to watch and listen to. Stemme was an excellent match for the strong orchestra, and well-paired with Lundgren. Indeed, the two have a history of performing Wagner together – and it felt as though their voices were built for the music of this composer.
Stemme, Lundgren, and Letonja appeared never to lose control (despite his broad movements and the Wagnerian drama he unleashed, Letonja didn’t seem to break a sweat). With the exception of a scarce few phrases from Lundgren, the two voices remained strikingly consistent throughout the night – they were unfalteringly robust, but without any visible exertion. Stemme’s presence was so commanding that it was impossible to wander into distraction as she sang. It would be challenging to match someone of her calibre and charisma with an equal to share her stage, and this could have been problematic had she been paired with someone of lesser presence. But Lundgren met her in skill and approach – and, as audience members, we could easily settle into the performance with trust in their expertise. Additionally, the somewhat temperamental acoustic of the Federation Concert Hall was excellent for this event.
Nina Stemme with Marko Letonja and John Lundgren
The TSO skilfully led us through an excerpt of Act III scene I of The Ride of the Valkyries; and of Act III scene iii, Wotan and Brünnhilde. The orchestra was joined by young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music. Although these players are technically still emerging into their performance careers, I never once felt that I was listening to “students” or anything less than the most seasoned of professional musicians. (Certainly, there was some imperfection found in the occasional off entry or intonation among winds and brass – but these are common occurrences in an orchestral performance.) In all, the body of sound produced by the TSO with ANAM musicians lived up to the ambition of such an enormous all-Wagner gala – and the cheer from the crowd that closed the first half of the concert provided evidence of the combined orchestra’s success.
After the interval was the overture from Der Fliegende Holländer; followed by The Dutchman’s Monologue, Die Frist ist um; and then Siegfried’s Funeral Music and Brünnhilde’s Immolation, each from Act III of Götterdämmerung. The performance over the course of the night strung together some of the most moving parts of the narrative that followed Brünnhilde’s journey from battle to flame. Though there was hardly any room on the stage for Lundgren and Stemme, they performed their roles with all the fervour of the characters they represented. The changes in lighting appeared minimal, but would move with them – a vibrant blue was cast over them to represent the sea; gold represented flame. Towards the end of the performance, a purple-white haze swelled above the orchestra – and it seemed that a true moment of magic was conjured as the music moved with the mist.
As with Stemme’s previous TSO performance, a lengthy standing ovation ensued.