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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Rienzi - opera in five acts (1840) [176.00]
Torsten Kerl (tenor) - Rienzi; Daniela Sintram (mezzo) - Adriano; Marika Schönberg (soprano) - Irene; Richard Wiegold (bass) - Colonna; Stefan Heidemann (baritone) - Orsini; Robert Bork (bass) - Cardinal; Marc Heller (tenor) - Baroncelli; Leonardo Nieva (bass) - Cecco; Jennifer O’Loughlin (soprano) - Messenger of Peace
Capitol Chorus; Choir of La Scala Academy, Milan
Capitol National Orchestra/Pinchas Steinberg
rec. Capitol Theatre, Toulouse, 7 and 10 October 2012
bonus: interviews with Pinchas Steinberg, Jorge Lavelli and other members of the cast and crew [55.00]
OPUS ARTE OA1110D [2 DVDs: 231.00]

Rienzi was Wagner’s first success as an operatic composer, but from the very beginning it caused problems. On the first night the composer was much alarmed to discover that he had seriously underestimated the length of his imitation French grand opera, and that the performance ran on well past midnight. He had already apparently consented to some cutting of the score, but rather than countenance any further trimming he suggested that the opera should be split into two halves, running over two nights, and this proposal was adopted for subsequent presentations. Wagner even added a new prelude with which the second evening was to begin. Here the opera is split over two discs, corresponding to that split; but, as will be seen, the edition of the score here employed makes substantial further alterations.
 
The manuscript full score fell into the hands of Hitler during the period of the Third Reich, and he took it with him into the Berlin bunker in 1945 after which it was seen no more and was presumably destroyed. This has made it extremely difficult in subsequent years to determine exactly what Wagner’s original intentions were. There has only been one performance in the last half century which made a conscientious attempt to give us the unabridged score. That was the broadcast recording conducted by Sir Edward Downes in 1976, which has been intermittently available on CD in various pirated versions and was repeated by the BBC this year (2013). The only other recording which aimed at any degree of completeness was the EMI set conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser issued also in 1976 and largely reproducing the score as published by Eulenberg; this not altogether satisfactory recording is, oddly enough, currently available not only as an independent set but also within complete surveys of Wagner operas issued by both EMI and DG as bumper boxes. There have been other recordings which fall clearly into the historical or vintage category; and a 1983 recording (Orfeo) by Wolfgang Sawallisch, based on a Munich production in commemoration of the centenary of Wagner’s death, made substantial cuts totalling some half an hour of music. The production under consideration here also makes cuts, but oddly enough they are not the same as the ones made by Sawallisch, who made numerous small snips in passages which are given in full in this performance. The only major cut here in the first two Acts (apart from repeats) is the whole of the ballet sequence, totalling around a quarter of an hour of music; otherwise we are given the score more or less complete, even with some passages restored which were omitted by Hollreiser.
 
Mind you, Wagner would certainly not have regarded his extensive ballet music as a desirable omission. In 1851 he wrote of this pageant: “With the eyes of an opera composer, I perceived in it a self-evident festival that Rienzi must give to the people, and at which he would exhibit to them in dumb show a dramatic scene from their ancient history … That this pantomime has had to be omitted from stage performances has been a serious drawback.” From the beginning of the second DVD, with the start of Act Three the scissors are applied with greater vigour, with half of the opening scene omitted. The fact that we are not shown the recriminations levelled at Rienzi for showing excessive clemency to his enemies renders his later threats of vengeance unmotivated; and worse is to come. The Battle Hymn which opens the third scene is cut completely - it is, after the Overture and Prayer, the best-known section of the score, and still figures today in the repertory of many male choirs. Its disappearance makes the later reminiscences of the choral themes musically meaningless. In the opening scene of Act Four, Adriano’s address to the conspirators is subjected to pruning which leaves his motivation obscure; such trimming betrays a lack of confidence in the dramatic situation with which Wagner presents us, and which he sought to realise in the first performance with the employment of Wilhelmina Schröder-Devrient whom he had so admired for her assumption of the role of Leonora in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Even at this early stage of his career Wagner realised the importance of such dramatic credibility, and to overlook this aspect of his art inevitably carries penalties. Then in the final Act after Rienzi’s prayer a good third of the score goes missing, with substantial cuts in both of Irene’s duets with her brother and her lover - which reduces her part to that of a nonentity - and even in the closing scene Rienzi’s initial challenge to the threatening Roman mob is omitted.
 
In the title role Torsten Kerl is a tower of strength, far more heroic in sound than Hollreiser’s René Kollo or even Downes’s John Mitchinson. The part of his sister (or what remains of it) is well taken by Marika Schönberg, some squally high notes excepted. Daniela Sintram not only sings well as Adriano but looks convincingly masculine - Sawallisch unforgivably re-assigned this role to a male singer - even though the cuts rob her of the chance to portray a fully rounded dramatic character. However the remainder of the cast are a very woolly-sounding bunch, and Richard Wiegold is particularly disappointing with a voice that sounds a couple of sizes too small and unconvincing bottom notes to boot. Wagner specifies that the role of Baroncelli should be sung by a tenor, but here Marc Heller sounds very baritonal indeed. Even the more reliable Robert Bork sounds under-powered in the dramatic scene in which he excommunicates Rienzi.
 
Pinchas Steinberg obtains vigorous and expressive performances from both the orchestra and the chorus drawn from two different opera houses, reflecting his success in later Wagnerian scores such as Der fliegende Holländer. During the Overture we see him whipping up a storm with the orchestra, but the pictures are intercut with newsreel shots of various revolutionary activities - including the fall of the Berlin Wall - which add nothing to the viewer’s understanding of the music. It is not clear whether these shots formed part of the stage presentation, or are an addition for the video, but they are intrusive and misguided since the production as a whole is clearly placed in the revolutionary era of the mid-nineteenth century. Steinberg’s performance is however musically superior and more engaged than that of the often rather laid-back Hollreiser. The singing of his three principals is better too, which makes the cuts in their music all the more regrettable.
 
The production by Jorge Lavelli is minimal but generally effective, and thankfully sticks pretty closely to Wagner’s precisely described intentions even when the sense of place and grandeur is missing. The chalky-white make-up on the faces of the principals is initially distracting, but the histrionic ability of Kerl and Sintram in particular overcomes this difficulty triumphantly. Rienzi is surprisingly given a horse on which to make his entrance in Act Three; but the poor beast looks understandably and distractingly nervous, with rolling eyes and twitching ears, as the tenor on its back lets rip. The sets sometimes are very effective, as in the excommunication scene and the burning of the Capitol; otherwise they are merely functional. The direction of the singers is quite prescriptive - Lavelli cites limited rehearsal time in his interview on the disc - and in consequence one does not always feel that the individuals really inhabit their roles. The bare stage means that Wagner’s frequent instructions for characters to enter unseen from amongst the crowd are rendered impossible to realise effectively. The chorus are all too often simply kept bunched in concert formation, which robs them of any real sense of involvement in the action. Given the fact that two choirs are involved, they still seem regrettably lacking in numbers to represent the Roman mob, only finding a degree of dramatic involvement in the final scene.
 
There is a substantial bonus in the shape of interviews with many of the individuals involved in the production. Subtitles are provided in German, English, French and Korean for the opera, but only in English for the bonus track. During these interviews Steinberg seeks to justify his cutting of the score on the grounds of practicality for the singer taking the title role, although this rather sidesteps the fact that the cuts are principally applied elsewhere; would Steinberg contemplate similar cutting in the even more strenuous parts of Siegfried and Tristan? Torsten Kerl proves to be a highly intelligent heldentenor who has clearly given careful thought to the problems created by Wagner’s personality and in particular his anti-Semitism. Jorge Lavelli goes out of his way to regret the excision of the ballet, the dramatic impact of which he recognises; but it is startling to hear him give Wagner’s date of death as 1888, an error which is faithfully rendered into the English subtitles.
 
There is another video recording of Rienzi available, also with Torsten Kerl in the title role, but this commits the cardinal error of directly identifying the leading character with Hitler - which completely abnegates the essentially benevolent nature of Rienzi, both in historical fact and even more so in Wagner’s treatment of him derived from Bulwer-Lytton’s novel. Those wanting a DVD version of Rienzi which avoids such ridiculous solecisms have only this version available to them - and it is a pretty good one at that. 
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey
 

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