Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Rienzi (1840)
Rienzi – Torsten Kerl (tenor)
Irene – Camilla Nylund (soprano)
Adriano – Kate Aldrich (mezzo)
Colonna – Ante Jerkunica (baritone)
Orsini – Krzysztof Szumanski (baritone)
Baroncelli – Clemens Bieber (tenor)
Cecco del Vecchio – Stephen Bronk (baritone)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin/Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Philipp Stölzl (director)
rec. live, Deutsche Oper, February 2010
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; LPCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1 Surround
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 521 [155:00]

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 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.

See here for the Seen and Heard review of the original production.

Simon Thompson

If you really want to explore Wagner’s first success then you shouldn’t hesitate in acquiring this DVD.