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On 2 November 2019, Australia played host to one of the world's foremost Wagner singers. The Swedish dramatic soprano Nina Stemme visited Hobart, Tasmania for one night only for a concert with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra at Federation Concert Hall. She was supported by fellow Swede, baritone John Lundgren, who sang Wotan to her Brünnhilde, and conductor Marko Letonja, the inaugural Conductor Laureate of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.
The concert was an all-Wagner program, with generous orchestral and sung extracts from three operas: Die Walküre, Götterdämmerung, and Der Fliegende Holländer.
The first half of the concert was extracts from Die Walküre. The audience first heard Stemme offstage singing Brünnhilde's war-cry before she emerged to greet Wotan. Her voice was clear, powerful and expressive. She demonstrated calm control even in the most demanding passages. Stemme is not only a great singer, she is also a great actress. She transcended the limited nature of a concert performance, acting the scenes, supported by the dramatic lighting by stage designer Bengt Gomér. Every time she was on stage her presence dominated but she showed great generosity towards and rapport with Lundgren. Part One of the concert concluded with Wotan's Farewell and a delicate performance of the Magic Fire Music.
In Part II, after a solo offering by Lundgren, Stemme returned to sing Brünnhilde's Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung. She demonstrated the tonal sureness and dramatic qualities that have assured she is currently Brünnhilde's greatest exponent.
The second half concluded with Stemme's magisterial performance. But it had begun by focusing on Lundgren. The orchestra opened with the overture from Der Fliegende Holländer, then Lundgren sang the Dutchman's Act I monologue. Lundgren performed this role at Bayreuth in 2018. His voice is rich and his performance commanding. As well as his clear and resonant baritone, he demonstrated a dramatic sureness, that show he is making the Dutchman role his own.
Under the baton of Marko Letonja the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra acquitted itself well. This was an expanded Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. To achieve Wagnerian proportions, the orchestra needed to import players from the mainland. Young students from the Australian National Academy of Music supplemented the Tasmanian orchestra. They all played beautifully as a single unit with a full-bodied, confident sound. The too-well-known Ride of the Valkyries sounded fresh.
This was Stemme's only Australian performance on this visit. The significance of one of the world's top opera singers only going to Hobart, rather than the music centres of Sydney and Melbourne, can't be over emphasised. For example, Bryn Terfel toured Australia a week after Stemme and only performed in Sydney and Melbourne. Tasmania, an island at Australia's southern tip, the gateway to Antarctica. Its capital, Hobart is a beautiful harbour city, but hardly a musical centre.
Why did Stemme decide to perform only there? Nina Stemme has strong ties to Tasmania and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra that make this (apparently strange) decision understandable.
In 2016 she sang, with Stuart Skelton, a concert of extracts from Tristan und Isolde. The concert won Australia's highest classical music award, the Helpmann Award for Best Symphony Orchestra Concert. The conductor was Marko Letonja, then chief conductor of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Letonja also conducted Stemme in the Stockholm Ring Cycle of 2017. Letonja is not the only connection with the 2017 Stockholm Ring Cycle. John Lundgren, played Wotan in the Swedish Ring Cycle.
The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra billed this concert as 'Nina Stemme Returns', a reminder of the success of the last concert but also recognition of how fortunate Hobart is to be able to hear (twice!) one of the world's greatest dramatic sopranos. The audience showed that appreciation on the night with a standing ovation. Australian opera fans can only hope that Nina Stemme returns, a third time.
Copyright © 12 November 2019