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 14th 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
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.
for the Seen and Heard review of the original production.