Cher Public

Capitol punishment

rienzi_amazonWhen Hans Von Bülow joked that Rienzi was Meyerbeer’s best opera, he was not very far off the mark.  In fact, Rienzi, der Letze der Tribunen, Wagner’s third opera, has all the traits of a typical “grand opéra”: it is divided in five acts, features a historical character or situation, makes large use of the chorus, and includes a ballet.

If Wagner had been granted his wish, it would have even been sung in French, as the composer tried all he could to have it premiered in Paris.  Only when he realized this would never happen, he turned to King Frederick Augustus of Saxony, and managed to have it produced in Dresden.

Although Rienzi was greeted with rapturous enthusiasm, Wagner quickly repudiated it.  Nevertheless, in Germanophone countries it remained one of Wagner’s most popular operas all throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century, the number of its performances dramatically dwindling only after War World Two.  

The DVD under review presents a production from Deutsche Oper Berlin, performed in April of this year.

I am not sure whether to call it a selection, or highlights from Rienzi, considering that only approximately half of the opera is performed.  Rienzi is Wagner’s longest work, clocking at almost five hours; the Dresden premiere lasted six hours including intermissions.  With an opera of such exorbitant length, cuts have always been inevitable.  Wagner himself excised several pieces for the second performance, to the chagrin of the singers, who wanted to perform all the music they had taken so much trouble to memorize.  The composer then split the opera into two consecutive evenings, but the audience did not appreciate paying twice for the same opera, so Wagner’s final solution was to perform the whole work in the same evening with some cuts.

If he used the scissors, the Berlin production team resorts to the ax, expunging about two and a half hours.  The original first and fifth acts are largely kept intact.  The second, third and fourth acts are reduced to stumps.  Entire scenes are deleted, and inner cuts abound.  The “new” edition is divided into two parts, respectively reflecting Rienzi’s rise and fall.

Nicola di Lorenzo, better known as Cola di Rienzo or simply Rienzi, was a mid 14th century Roman populist figure who, taking advantage of Rome’s political chaos and the fact that the Papacy had been removed to Avignon, managed to seize power from the aristocracy, granting wider rights to the common people.  His fortune went on through ebbs and flows and his life was worthy of an adventure novel, through triumphs, captivity, a death sentence, and several escapes.   After managing to gain power one last time and proclaiming himself senator, he ultimately fell of favor with everyone and even the commoners turned against him, setting fire to the Capitol where he had taken shelter, and was stabbed to death while trying to escape in disguise.

The early 19th century re-discovered the figure of Cola di Rienzo.  His having fought against the aristocracy, his attempts at unifying Italy and minimizing the Papal power made him a tragic hero in the eyes of liberal nationalists.   Wagner himself, who in his youth was what nowadays would be called a progressive, dreaming of a unified Germany, fell in love with Rienzi after reading Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s eponymous novel.

Stage director Philipp Stölz, who started his career directing video clips for (among others) Madonna, is unable to resist the temptation to view Rienzi’s life and career through the lens of the dictatorships of the 20th century.  There is a definite link between the opera and this period: Stalin used to have the overture played during his military parades, and Hitler’s worship of this score is well known.  It was his favorite opera, and he owned the manuscript, which most likely was destroyed in his bunker the day of his death.

However, the concept is already drab and platitudinous, almost obvious; Nicholas Hytner had already used it almost two decades for a production of Rienzi at ENO.

Stolz sets the action in the late 1930s, and his protagonist is a cross of Mussolini, Hitler and perhaps Stalin, or, better, a caricature of them.  More often than not, Stolz’ dictator is evocative of Charlie Chaplin’s Hynkel.  His Rienzi has very little, if anything, in common with the tragic hero imagined by Bulwer-Lytton and Wagner; with bulging eyes, he thrusts his jaw forward in pure Mussolini style.  During the overture, a corpulent Rienzi’s stand-in plays with a globe and does somersaults and cartwheels.  The Roman people are first represented as grotesque clowns; only after accepting Rienzi’s leadership do they change into black dresses with white aprons (for the women) and into Nazi-style uniforms (the men).

Irene, Rienzi’s sister, undergoes a similar transformation.  Wagner’s ingénue becomes a Über-Frau, a sort of a blend between two famous Evas (Braun and Peron) with a touch of Ukraine’s Yulija Timoshenko with her characteristic halo of blond braids.  Stölz not too timidly suggests an incestuous relationship between the two siblings, a very Wagnerian theme indeed.

Whenever Rienzi appears on stage, his face is projected on a large screen, so as to suggest that all his life is nothing but a huge photo-op.  Stölz also makes ample use of films reminiscent of the old propaganda newsreels.

The ending has been modified as well.  Whereas in the original opera Rienzi, Irene and Adriano all die under the collapsing Capitol, in Stölz’ version Rienzi is first stabbed by Adriano and later finished off by the mob, Irene is murdered in the bunker, while Adriano is allowed to survive.

Although Stölz’ approach may be debatable, it is undeniable that he succeeds in bringing to life something extremely theatrical, creative and of secure impact on the audience.   I may take exception with his perception and portrayal of Rienzi, but I never got bored.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts with vigor and brilliancy, drawing a glorious sound from the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper.   In this opera the chorus is the co-protagonist and Rienzi’s principal interlocutor, and the contribution of the Deutsche Oper Chorus is simply magnificent.

Helden-tenor Torsten Kerl is impressive for his stamina.  Rienzi’s role, even in this abridged version, is of monumental arduousness, relentlessly hitting the area of the passaggio and above; Kerl makes it to the end of the performance with no sign of strain due to a iron-clad technique.

Irene is not a memorable part; Wagner did not assign her an aria.  This production has Irene often on stage, a first lady to her brother, even when she is not singing.   Camilla Nylund brings to the role a fine stage presence, good acting skills but an undistinguished lyric soprano.

Kate Aldrich sings the role of Adriano Colonna, a part created by Wagner’s favorite soprano and muse, the legendary and scandalous Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient.   Aldrich does not play Adriano as a hero, but rather as an insecure, unconfident young man emasculated by his father’s domination.  She has one of those “amphibious” voices that stretch the border between soprano and mezzo-soprano, and therefore a good fit for this ambiguous role.  Her instrument, though not large, is pleasing and homogeneous throughout its range.  The Berlin audience seems to love her and bestows on her the biggest ovation of the evening.

This production demonstrates that, with all his flaws and weaknesses, Rienzi is an enjoyable work worthy of more frequent appearances.  Who knows, perhaps one day Bayreuth will accept the challenge.  One would hope so, especially considering that it was Cosima – and not the composer himself, who banned this opera from that holy stage.

  • Will

    I have no idea as to current availability, but there is a note complete (including all three episodes of the lengthy act three ballet) 1976 BBC performance starring John Mitchinson, Lorna Haywood, Michael Langdon, Raimund Herincx and David Ward, conducted by Edward Downes.

    Parts of it are really impressive and the whole thing has a shape and grandeur that are seriously compromised by the heavy cuts that have been inevitable in stage performances. The BBC broadcast it live starting in the morning with big breaks between acts to help the singers through the mass of it.

    • Regina delle fate

      A Vicar’s wet-dream cast!!!! In fact it was available on a label that seems to have gone defunct -- Mitridate or Ponto which had some fabulous “off the air” sets, including the original Baker/Tinsley Maria Stuarda from ENO, several of Baker’s BBC studio recordings of Handel Operas -- Ariodante, Orlando, Radamisto -- and treasures such as the Muti/Scotto/Bruson Macbetto from Covent Garden, Julia Varady’s Aida and La traviata. But it IS more complete than the Hollreiser studio recording and Haywood was a very fine, much underrated singer -- a memorable ENO Butterfly, Tosca, Nedda, Katya Kabanova and Emilia Marty and she sang Jenufa (in English) with Mackerras at Covent Garden. She retired to the US, where I think she still teaches. There is a treasure trove of in-house studio opera recordings made when Elaine Padmore, now at the ROH, was head of opera at Radio 3 -- they include the Verdi “original version” series which have come out on Opera Rara. Maybe Opera Rara can be persuaded to issue the complete Rienzi, too….

      • Will

        I have that entire series of original versions of Verdi (Macbeth, Forza, Don Crlos, Boccanegra — which is radically different throughout, almost a wholly unknown Verdi opera — and Vepres Siciliennes). They are incredibly valuable and all are quite well performed. Somebody at the BBC had a vision that was remarkably intelligent.

        • Will

          Regina, I just checked on Amazon, and the Downes Rienzi is out on 4 Ponto CDs but not yet available on Amazon — you have to sign up to get an email message when they have in in stock. It may be available through ther outlets,

          It includes 40 minutes of the act 3 ballet and the cello section of the overture preceding the trumpet call that we usually hear as the beginning, but which isn’t the way Wagner wrote it.

        • Regina delle fate

          Yes Will -- the singers on those sets may not have great voices, but they sound pretty good compared with what we hear in similar repertoire today. Padmore’s BBC productions document many worthwhile singers of the 1970s who were not on the radar of the big record companies. For those of us who actually heard them frequently in the theatre, it’s good to have mementos of their sterling work. And Padmore was able to persuade a couple of starry names -- Arroyo for Forza, Bruscantini for Boccanegra -- to appear alongside the Brits and Commonwealthers.

  • I love the story of Hans Von Bulow who was engaged to play the Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto No 1 at the premier of the work. The story goes that in frustration at the challenges and difficulties inherant in playing the piece, at one point he yelled out “The brass section can go to hell!” then went on to let out a string of loud expletives which “fell out over the conductor, the music and a rather startled audience”. I would have loved to have been there.

  • La Valkyrietta

    For some years Wagner’s de facto nickname was ‘the composer of Rienzi’. Not too long after the premiere of this work in Dresden, the Dutchman saw the light and it was not successful. I would love to have seen Wilhelmine as Senta as she was, of course, coached by Wagner himself. Not complaining about fabulous Leonie, of course. In those remote forties before the namesake of Chico, Graucho and Harpo acquired notoriety, Rienzi was a million times more popular than the Dutchman. Oh well, pity Wagner never did write an opera to his libretto of ‘Leuwald and Adelaide’, the bloody Bayreuth ‘Parsifal’ production would have served for that…or at least to confuse those regie quizes here.

  • peter

    Does anyone remember the performance of Rienzi in 1982 at Carnegie Hall? I remember hearing a soprano named Elizabeth Payer but when I just looked at the NY Times review it said that she was indisposed and someone by the name of April Evans? Was it done a few years earlier as well with Payer?

  • Dawson

    A bizarre Rienzi is the version from La Scala 1964 with Giuseppe Di Stefano in the title role, Raina Kabaivanska as Irene and Gianfranco Cecchele as Adriano Colonna. Yes, role was transposed for a tenor, as they did more or less in the same period for Romeo in Capuleti. It’s in Italian obviously.
    Thank you Ercole for your detailed and insightful review, a pleasure to read as usual.

  • Henry Holland

    If you know how to use to BirTorrent, you can download the Downes 1976 recording on Ponto here:

    I’m going to try to download it tonight at home. Of course, as usual with BT, the more the merrier.

  • manou

    In the wrong thread, but addressed to the right reviewer, I am pasting this from OperaBritannia ( :

    Metropolitan Opera Critic Required

    Opera Britannia is looking for a further critic to join Richard Garmise (Chief Critic, USA) in reviewing at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. The successful critic must have previous experience at writing opera criticism, whether in print or for an online reviewing service. If you are interested in joining us, please email me with some examples of your work and details of your specialised interests. The email address is:

    • Dawson

      As a shameless fan of Ercole, I do hope he applies for the job.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    From the Amazon website:
    “Amazon now allows customers to upload product video reviews. Use a webcam or video camera to record and upload reviews to Amazon.”

    Here’s hoping some of the Parterrians will be featured there soon.

    • Dawson

      I would LOVE to see Mr. Farnese himself read his own reviews possibly while showing his herculean physique.

      • Nina Micheltorena

        I am a big fan of Ercole’s too. The guy has a beautiful muscle body and loves opera: please Ercole marry me!!!!