Richard Wagner’s early opera “Rienzi” is stylistically closer to Meyerbeer and bel canto than to Wagner’s later masterworks. Yet even this early work – especially as presented in this recording – is “so fantastically beautiful that it takes one’s breath away” (Berliner Zeitung). And in this staging by Philipp Stölzl, who condensed the five-act opera into a little over two hours, “Rienzi” becomes a startlingly powerful and timeless parable of power and abuse. Though the story of the rise and fall of a charismatic leader and his totalitarian regime takes place in 14th-century Rome, Stölzl sets it somewhere in the recent past. The topic “anticipates the history of the 20th-century in a visionary way”, says Stölzl, adding that “one can make surprising analogies to many despots of this time: Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Ceausescu…” Since film was a central propaganda tool of 20th-century totalitarian systems, Stölzl uses film projections to make the “tribune” Rienzi tower above the masses or, in the style of old newsreels, to show a utopian “New Rome”. It is, after all, with films that Stölzl began his career: directing video clips for Rammstein and Madonna, then directing feature films (“North Face”, “Goethe!”) and staging operas at major venues, including the Salzburg Festival. Tenor Torsten Kerl, who has visibly studied the gestures of the 20th century’s major dictators, gives a brilliant and eloquent Rienzi; his dutiful sister Irene, sung by Camilla Nylund with great lyrical intensity, is paired with a lover, Adriano, interpreted by the luminous mezzo Kate Aldrich, “the discovery of the evening” (Süddeutsche Zeitung). Also worthy of lead-role status is the chorus, which masters its demanding part with stunning presence and accuracy. The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin is led with exuberance and precision by young conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing.
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 156 mins (opera) + 26 mins (bonus)
No. of DVDs: 2 (DVD 9)
R E V I E W S:
WAGNER Rienzi & • Sebastian Lang-Lessing, cond; Torsten Kerl (Rienzi); Camilla Nylund (Irene); Ante Jerkunica (Steffano Colonna); Kate Aldrich (Adriano Colonna); Krzysztof Szumanski (Paolo Orsini); Lenus Carlson (Cardinal Orvieto); Clemens Bieber (Baroncelli); Deutsche Op Berlin O & Ch • ARTHAUS 101521 (2 DVDs: 156:00)
& Documentary: the Making of Rienzi (26: 00)
I’ll start this Hall of Fame recommendation by saying that I’m one of those who believes that Wagner was right to ban performances of Rienzi at Bayreuth, but not for the reasons he claimed. It was not a completely weak or immature score, but rather the very pinnacle of French Grand Opéra as it had developed through Meyerbeer, and in that respect it is fascinating and valuable. It clearly shows not only the young Wagner’s debt to Meyerbeer but also the ways in which he rose above and transcended this style. Yet being smart enough to realize this, he had to ban its performance in order to appear to have come out of an artistic vacuum whole and complete with Der fliegende Holländer, which also has traces of older opera but not as many. Wagner had to sever his ties with the past in order to remain supreme in his art. Rienzi, flaws and all, is one of the greatest “spectacle” operas ever written, and Wagner was moving away from spectacle for its own sake.
Director Philipp Stölzl makes it very clear that Rienzi is Hitler. There are also references to Mussolini and Stalin as well, which is apropos because, after all, it was Mussolini more so than Hitler who ran his thuggish government in Rome with the tacit approval of the Roman Catholic Church, and Stalin also used a portion of the Rienzi overture to rally his troops. By this time, I’m sure we all know that the young Hitler was deeply moved by Rienzi when he saw it in 1905, that he envisioned himself as a “tribune of the people” in the same way, but that he also recognized that Rienzi’s greatest weakness was to pardon those who tried to kill him. All of this is part of history, as is the fact that he somehow wangled the autograph score of the opera out of the hands of the Wagner family and that it was incinerated with him in his bunker in 1945. But what Hitler seemed to miss were the facts that originally Rienzi was a man who shunned power, saying that the Church should make rulings in matters of morals and a people-elected Senate should make the laws. Moreover, Wagner was distrustful of any centralized government, not only then but later in life, which is why he had to eventually put Rienzi in the midst of a war he could not control and was powerless to win. In that environment, Rienzi would eventually be blamed for the deaths of many civilians as well as nobles; both sides would attack him, and he would lose his power and his life. Somehow that part of the message eluded Hitler.
That being said, if I think Stölzl is too heavy-handed with the Hitler-like imagery it is still, far and away, the most brilliant and dramatically powerful performance of the opera I’ve ever seen or heard. Some of this is due to Stölzl’s brilliant management of crowd scenes—like Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, the people are protagonists in this opera and very much the victims of intersect squabbling and, eventually, war. Some of this is due to the excellently sung and acted performance of Torsten Kerl as Rienzi, a tenor with a virtually inexhaustible high range, necessary in this role because it has a much higher tessitura that later Wagnerian tenor roles. Certainly, another major factor is the absolutely riveting impersonation of mezzo Kate Aldrich as Adriano, a performance that keeps going from strength to strength until she comes to dominate the second half of the opera. But much of the real fire in this performance comes from the podium. Lang-Lessing is, for me, one of the most gifted Wagner conductors I’ve heard in the present day. He injects life and lift into every phrase, orchestral or vocal, in the opera and manages to pull the disparate threads of this massive work together like no one else I’ve heard of late.
We get a little more of the opera here than we once did back in the early 1960s, before some of the missing score was found. The first DVD (acts I and II) runs 91 minutes, while DVD 2 (acts III to V) runs 58 minutes sans curtain calls and end credits. One scene and character are gone from this production, the voice of Peace in the second act. Apparently, Stölzl isn’t much of a fan of peace doves singing.
My lone objection to the production is that, like so many other modern directors, Stölzl seems to think his audience is either ignorant of history or too dumb to make their own connections. In fact, I think that’s an essential aim of all Regietheater, to hammer us over the head with obvious symbolism because they feel we’re too stupid to make the connections ourselves. Yet as I say, it works brilliantly, and thanks in some measure to the direction and the singing-actors, but especially to the conductor, you’ll be on the edge of your seat from start to finish in this brilliant performance. And that makes it, for me, something that deserves to be in the collection of everyone who enjoys brilliant music theater.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
The conventional wisdom on Wagner’s Rienzi is that it is unperformable. It is famously long and unwieldy – it’s Wagner’s longest work, and for him that is saying a lot! The composer himself eschewed it in his later years as being unworthy of being performed at the shrine of Bayreuth. None of this, however, stopped the Deutsche Oper from mounting their own production early in 2010 and it has already become somewhat legendary. Now you can make up your own mind about it with this DVD.
The production has two main merits. Firstly it is a new performing edition created by director Philip Stölzl and his assistant Christian Baier and they have slashed the score down to a running time of just over 2½ hours. This gets rid of much of the most ponderous material and makes it palatable for a single evening. Wagner himself, by the way, always recognised that its length was a problem and in the 1840s had originally floated the idea of performing it over two nights, an idea that was justifiably unpopular with the Dresden audiences as it would effectively have had them paying twice for the same opera.
Its second great merit is the interpretation of the production and it is for this that the DVD really deserves to be noticed. Gone is the original setting of 14 th Century Rome with its power politics and factional rivalry – though, for reasons of integrity, the name of Rome is maintained in the libretto. Instead we are placed firmly in 1930s Berlin and given a savage dramatic analysis of the power of the dictator to entrance a population. From the very start we see Rienzi sitting in his private study, gazing out over a view that would put many in mind of Hitler’s Berghof. The backdrop of Act 1 is reminiscent of a painting by George Grosz and, as Rienzi takes power, we see film footage and, later, models of Berlin’s Reichstag, Siegessäule and Albert Speer’s monstrous Germania building. For most of the performance the backdrop consists of a huge cinema screen with propaganda images being projected onto it, be they images of Rienzi’s speeches, his visions for Das Neue Rom, or wartime production lines. The footage has been carefully modelled on Leni Riefenstahl’s films for Hitler, most notable The Triumph of the Will, something the video directors admit they based their work on. Rienzi is swept to power on a wave of popular approval then begins to remake Rome in his own image. He sends his people on a meaningless war and then spends the whole of the second part (the original Acts 3 – 5) in his bunker beneath the streets before, in the final sequence, he is dragged out and lynched.
Not everyone will like this interpretation, and there were predictable boos from the audience when the production was premiered, but to my mind it works tremendously well. Rienzi himself bears some striking parallels with Hitler – helped, no doubt, by selective editing in preparing the performing edition – and it does not feel as though the production has been squeezed into a straitjacket: instead it is a genuinely sensitive and useful updating, something that reminds us that opera in general and this work in particular still have something to say to us today. The fact that the location of the show was only just down the road from the original Führerbunker must have made it pretty close to the bone for the Berlin audiences and I still found it powerful to watch from the armchair.
The performances themselves are uniformly strong. Torsten Kerl, who was Tristan in Glyndebourne’s most recent production, sings like an old-fashioned Heldentenor with a magnificent ring to his voice. True, he sounds a little pinched as the evening wears on, but the voice never loses its sheen and the prayer in Act 5 still sounds convincing, despite the evident strain he is under. His sister (and lover?), Irene, is played magnificently by Camilla Nylund. Her appearance is so Aryan as to make the parallel with Eva Braun obvious, but her voice is heroic and steely and has the power to make the scalp prickle in her various declamatory scenes. American mezzo Kate Aldrich sings the breeches role of Adriano, Irene’s lover and the son of one of Rienzi’s aristocratic rivals. She, too, is magnificent with a lovely sheen to the top of her voice and a rich centre that captures Adriano’s torn loyalties most convincingly. The other roles are all taken well, especially Bieber and Bronk as Rienzi’s disloyal henchmen.
Dramatically speaking, therefore, the work is very convincing; but what of its music? I’m afraid the conventional wisdom is broadly correct on this one. Even in its abbreviated form Rienzi feels long and its many triumphal marches and patriotic choruses can wear a little thin at times. Furthermore the orchestral colour lacks almost any of Wagner’s later inventiveness: big and bold seem to be the two keynotes, and the sung moments are too much in the stand-and-deliver style. None of this stops the performers from giving it their all, though, and the Deutsche Oper Orchestra do a great job at playing and shaping it seriously. I think, however, that this opera is one to watch as well as to see, particularly in this version. For the sheer involvement factor of having the visuals as well as the excellent singing this automatically replaces the only other complete version of the opera that is easily available, that on EMI with Hollreiser and the Staatskapelle Dresden, though the EMI is more complete. If you really want to explore Wagner’s first success then you shouldn’t hesitate in acquiring this DVD.
-- Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Rienziby Richard Wagner Performer:
Kate Aldrich (Mezzo Soprano),
Torsten Kerl (Tenor),
Camilla Nylund (Soprano)
Berlin Deutsche Oper Chorus,
Berlin Deutsche Oper Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1840-1843; Germany
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Shock and AweAugust 3, 2013By Stanley J. (Baltimore, MD)See All My Reviews"Have attended performances at this theater and have always been shocked and overwhelmed by the productions. The same is true of this opera. Well worth enjoying, and note the changes in Wagner as he matured into Lohengrin and eventually The Ring."Report Abuse
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