Wagner’s First Big Hit Cut Down to Size

Review by: Robert Levine

OA1110-D Wagner Rienzi_ins v8_.

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

Rienzi was Wagner’s first success, debuting in Dresden in 1842. That premiere evening lasted for six hours, complete with ballet. It was very much in the French Grand Opera mold but with the occasional vocal line redolent of Italian opera (Wagner was conducting Norma while he composed Rienzi). Indeed, years later Hans von Bülow referred to it as “Meyerbeer’s best opera”, doubly ironic since Meyerbeer had been instrumental in getting Rienzi produced, and later Wagner opted to despise him.

The epic work centers around the life of a Roman populist figure, Cola di Rienzi (1313-1354), the “people” vs the nobles, and the conflict between the Colonna and Orsini families. Rienzi, named Tribune, manages to empower the people; the nobles rebel and he, with the backing of the Church, wrests control from the nobles, one of whom, Adriano Colonna, had previously rescued Rienzi’s sister, Irene. Adriano warns Rienzi of a plot by the nobles to assassinate him, and when the plot is foiled Rienzi convinces the people to spare the would-be assassins. Another uprising is attempted and with Rienzi fighting alongside the people, the leaders of the Orsini and Colonna clan are killed. The loss of life in general, however, has angered the people, and they, the church, and the nobles—including Adriano—all turn on Rienzi. The opera ends as the nobles set fire to the Capitol with Rienzi, Irene, and Adriano inside.

An aside or two: Hitler saw a production of Rienzi in Linz in 1905; he later claimed that it was the story of the populist eponymous hero that motivated him to think about a career in politics rather than continue with his painting. In addition, he kept the score in his bunker and it is said to have perished with him. Performance scores since then have relied on copies. A BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra performance (on Ponto CDs) from 1976 conducted by Edward Downes lasts for four hours and 40 minutes. In 1983, conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch edited that edition down to (a workable) three and a half hours (available on Orfeo CDs); in the edition under consideration here, recorded in October, 2012 at Toulouse’s Theatre du Capitole, running time is about 40 minutes shorter than the Sawallisch. I own both: the Downes takes patience—it is weighed down by endless marches, choruses, preludes, and postludes—and the Sawallisch, in a fine edition, is spoiled by casting a tenor in the role of Adriano, a trouser part in Wagner’s score.

Frankly, if heretically, I find this current edition, led by Pinchas Steinberg, enough music, enough Rienzi. The wonderfully energetic finale to the second act, with wacky coloratura in the upper female voices, has been shorn of a repeat, but that’s the only passage I miss. Steinberg’s leadership is faultless, with forward propulsion (helped by the cuts) that actually turns the opera into real drama. He also gets superb playing from The Orchestra National du Capitole and glorious choral work from both the Capitole and La Scala singers. The former makes its superb impression during the wonderful overture with its right-on brass calls, silky string playing, and plangent winds. And the two choruses, with plenty to do, prove themselves able to sing at all dynamic levels and with fine attention to the text.

The vocal star of the show is, quite rightly, tenor Torsten Kerl, who is making somewhat of a specialty of this crazily demanding part. (He appears in the Arthaus DVD from the Deutsche Oper as well.) Kerl is tireless, and while his tone can be a bit leathery, it is mostly appealing and he’s an intelligent artist. He emphasizes the leader-as-man-of-the-people side of Rienzi, which is what Wagner (at the time a left-wing, quasi-revolutionary) intended, rather than the power-corrupts side, which is filled with 20-20 hindsight in the Deutsche Oper production that makes clear the Rienzi/Hitler connection. Kerl’s last-act Prayer is as effective as his outbursts; the voice has no audible problems.

Soprano Marika Schönberg sings Irene’s music with great feeling but occasionally flies wildly sharp, particularly noticeable in the trio in the fourth act;  elsewhere her shrill top irritates, but her sincerity and involvement never falter. Mezzo Daniela Sindram’s Adriano is delivered with power and thrust, the tone true. A tall woman, her height adds to the character’s stature; he is brave, loving, and resolute (and the vocal range is formidable). Richard Wiegold and Stefan Heidemann as Colonna and Orsini sing with power and expressiveness, and Robert Bork, as Cardinal Orvieto, is a proper bully. The others, with not much to do, are all first class.

The production is odd and fiercely stylized. Beginning with films of civil unrest, demonstrations, police actions, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it then moves to a timeless, non-specific region, but probably the late 19th century. All of the characters are in near-Kabuki whiteface. Riccardo Sanchez Cuerda’s minimalist (to say the least) sets consist of metal walls, faintly rusty and full of rivets; they cause the in-fighting to be almost suffocating. A gigantic wooden cross, a rolling platform, and candles spruce up the scene. You can barely tell the Plebes from the Patricians—probably the point—and the choruses representing them all act as one—mob thinking, mob rule.

There’s very little color. The men are invariably in dark coats and they wear hats; splashes of red decorate the clergy and Rienzi (who enters on a white horse as he ascends to power—a scene that oddly has little effect other than to show off a white horse); Irene wears a red gown. The women at times are shawled and veiled in white/off white shrouds; a scene with them in red is effective. All of the costumes (by Francesco Zito) are handsome. Jorge Lavelli directs, but not with much purpose: the soloists are left pretty much on their own with their music to create character, and the chorus moves in unison. The burning of the Capitol is impressive.

What to do? The Arthaus/Berlin version is superior vocally only in the role of Irene; it is ugly to look at (the cast wears grotesque masks), and as mentioned above, its directorial stance is to equate Rienzi with [place name of hideous dictator here], which is invalid within the framework of the character, who is noble and genuinely wishes to unite rather than destroy. There are those who will not approve of a Rienzi that has almost two hours of music removed, but this does not feel like a “highlights from Rienzi” project. It gives a good sense of what Wagner was doing at 26—and is even more remarkable when you realize the giant step he took with the opera that followed, Der fliegende Höllander.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one on DVD; Deutsche Oper (Arthaus)

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