It is a safe bet that not many people sitting in the audience for the first of two sold-out performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder had seen this massive work played live – including the person wielding the baton, Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Simone Young.

But there could not have been a better candidate for its fourth ever staging in this country, and the orchestra’s first. And “staging” is the appropriate word with a few rows of the Concert Hall’s stalls sacrificed for the extended apron needed to accommodate the more than 400 musicians drawn from two orchestras and three choirs, each from a different state, alongside a top-notch cast of six soloists.

Young called on all her experience as one of the world’s most respected Wagnerians to direct traffic for the one hour and 50 minutes of Schoenberg’s lavish farewell to tonality. Composed over nearly a decade and premiered in 1913, the song cycle tells the tale of big trouble in Denmark when medieval king Waldemar (Simon O’Neill) falls in love with the beautiful Tove (Ricarda Merbeth) and sets her up in the seaside castle of Gurre.

Simone Young conducts Gurrelieder. Photo © Daniel Boud

Like all good Scandi noirs love is inextricably linked with death, and Waldemar’s queen Helvig, who we never meet, is jealous and has Tove murdered. We learn this from the wood dove Waldtaube (Deborah Humble).

Waldemar rails at God, calling him a “tyrant rather than a ruler”, and is consequently condemned forever to be a “court jester”, getting his cavalrymen out of their graves to ride off with him into the night skies looking for his lost love.

New Zealander O’Neill shows why he is in such demand for heldentenor roles. His timbre has an edge to it – less mellifluous than Australia’s own Stuart Skelton – but this enables his voice to cut through the 185 instruments in the orchestra for those great heroic moments in the nine solos he is given, ringing out beautifully in the farewell aria My wonderful Tove!

In the hour-long first part O’Neill and German soprano Merbeth swapped arias (but no duets) and there was a great musical chemistry between the two voices, although Merbeth’s lower register did occasionally get swamped.

This was not surprising when you consider the score requires eight flutes; five oboes; seven clarinets; five bassoons; 10 horns (four doubling Wagner tubas); six trumpets (plus bass); seven trombones; tuba; two timpanists; nine percussionists; four harps, celeste and strings. The SSO was augmented by 24 members of Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM).

Gurrelieder. Photo © Daniel Boud

Merbeth is particularly treasured for her Wagner and Strauss roles throughout the world and her glorious high note in the climactic (in every sense of the word) aria Your eyes meet mine in a lover’s glance was a crowning moment.

The orchestral interlude that follows is as erotic as anything in Wagner’s Tristan and we’re left in no doubt that consummation is taking place.

Australian British Humble’s rich and creamy mezzo was ideal for Waldtaube in her long pivotal aria at the dramatic close of the first part.

O’Neill was at his powerful best in his bitterly angry rant, God, do you know how you have wounded me? which makes up the brief second part of the cycle.

The final part featured three terrific soloists. Serbian bass-baritone Sava Vemić was suitably urgent and nervous as the Peasant who describes the king’s retainers being summoned from their graves, while local tenor Andrew Goodwin was as outstanding as ever as Klaus the Fool who refuses to leave his grave and waffles on nonsensically for one of the work’s rare light moments.

Opera Australia veteran bass Warwick Fyfe also provided some smile for the sprechgesangen part, The Narrator, although it has to be said that his version was more gesangen than sprech.

The three choirs – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the men from Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus – were only needed for the final part, culminating in the mind-altering final number, Seht die Sonne (See the sun rise), surely a radiant ending to rival that of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

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