When reviewing a DVD presentation of Wagner’s Rienzi last year I spent some time discussing the problems created by the sheer length of the work. These problems surfaced even at the time of the première in Dresden. Wagner was horrified to discover that he had seriously miscalculated the duration of his Meyerbeerian grand opera, and that the performance ran on long after the audience had to leave to get home before the early hours of the morning. This was after he had already made some cuts in his over-extended score. For later presentations, rather than make further cuts, he suggested that the work should be given over two evenings, and even added a new prelude to introduce the second half. The original manuscript, which presumably contained the passages cut before the first night, was lost after Hitler took it with him into his Berlin bunker in 1945. The only performance which has ever endeavoured to give the work totally unabridged was that by Sir Edward Downes for a broadcast in 1976, which has intermittently been available on CD (Ponto PO-1040) and was repeated by the BBC last year. Apart from that the only recording which has made any real attempt at completeness was the EMI set conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser (5099972 913222 but also included in DG’s Wagner ‘Complete Operas’ box 0289 479 0502 8) which largely reproduced the printed Eulenberg score as produced during the composer’s lifetime. Other recordings have either been historical or vintage versions, and the only other modern CD set, that conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch (Orfeo C346953D), not only made swingeing cuts but also re-assigned the mezzo-soprano trouser role of Adriano to a baritone, which makes nonsense of the character’s music. Pinchas Steinberg’s DVD which I reviewed last year also perpetrated substantial omissions.
This recording too makes massive cuts in the score; for example, the ballet music in Act Two is reduced from a quarter of an hour to two-and-a-half minutes. Wagner regarded this music as essential to the plot, writing in 1851: “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.” A straightforward comparison with the timings on the Hollreiser set shows how much else has gone missing, too. Act One is left untouched, but over twenty minutes has gone from Act Two; and nearly half an hour has been taken out of the last three Acts, here crammed together onto the final CD.
It cannot be claimed, as plausibly - although unconvincingly - could be the case in Weigle’s earlier recording of Das Liebesverbot, that what has been removed here is simply repetition and fat. Wagner had already removed some material that he regarded as superfluous before the first performance, and the published Eulenberg score clearly enshrines the version that he wished to be given in future. He was clearly so concerned to keep what was left that he was prepared to countenance the work being split over two evenings - a procedure which was novel in the days before his own Ring and Berlioz’s Troyens. As in the case of Meyerbeer’s grand operas, removal of sections of the score not only omits music of interest but also makes nonsense of the plot. Rienzi and Adriano’s frequent changes of mood and action seem simply unmotivated when the circumstances which surround them go unexplained. Wagner may have lifted his scenario from Bulwer Lytton’s novel, but no less so than in his own later texts he was concerned to make his characters comprehensible. When this is sacrificed, so too is much of the intended dramatic effect.
I will not rehearse here the various snips, large and small that are made in the music, which will be of interest only to those with access to a score although one might observe that almost half of Act Three is missing. Quite apart from the dramatic drawbacks, one cut here also makes musical nonsense. The Roman war song for male choir — probably, after the Overture and the Prayer, the best-known section of the score; Wagner also quotes from it, as one of the principal themes, in the overture — is, as in the Steinberg DVD, simply omitted. This means that when phrases from the chorus are repeated during the following battle scene they have no relevance to the plot. This is quite simply unthinking barbarism. The booklet notes that the “musical arrangement” has been undertaken by Sebastian Zierer and Björn Huestige; why it should take two people to perpetrate this travesty of the composer’s intentions is unclear. What makes it worse is that the cutting leaves much of the more militaristic march music intact (especially in Act Two), which makes the score sound even noisier and more mindless than it really is. It also gives quite a false impression of the work.
At least in the case of the Steinberg DVD there was an attempt made by producer and conductor to justify their cutting of the score. It was a bad one – that the title role was too tiring for the singer, when in fact their pruning of the score left his part largely uncut while making massive excisions elsewhere. At least the attempt at exculpation was made. Here the booklet is entirely silent on the fact that what we are being given here is not Rienzi as Wagner originally intended it, nor indeed as he left it to posterity, but a version where around an hour of music has been simply omitted. This is not the only defect in presentation. The Hollreiser set (at least in the 1991 reissue I possess) contained not only the complete text but also an English translation. Here we are given the abridged German text as sung, and no translation at all. The English synopsis provided hardly begins to unravel the complexities of the plot nor does the performance of the Overture. It’s jaunty and brightly brassy with some decidedly scrappy string playing in the running passages at 8.05 but does little to inspire confidence in Weigle’s treatment of what is left of the score.
The recording is taken from two live concert performances, and suffers from a very forward balance. When the singing begins we immediately encounter Christiane Libor’s Irene. She was impressive enough in Weigle’s recording of Das Liebersverbot, but here she sounds under strain, shrill and panic-stricken in entirely the wrong sort of way. When Peter Bronder as her brother enters, he also sounds pale - a lyric tenor singing a notch above his comfort zone - by the side of the heroic Torsten Kerl on the Steinberg DVD. René Kollo on the Hollreiser set was little better, and Bronder has a more naturally sympathetic timbre. This voice does not sound anything like charismatic enough to inspire a revolution by the power of oratory alone. He is horribly strained, for example, as he calls the Romans to arms (CD 1, track 3, 4.48) although his good intentions and dramatic involvement are never in question. Only in his lyrical delivery of the prayer in the final Act (CD3, track 7) does he really come into his own. By that stage it is a bit late, since he is beginning to sound tired by his exertions earlier on. He makes a somewhat pallid effect and nor does he manage to sound suitably defiant in his final address to the Roman mob.
Neither is Claudia Mahnke much more satisfactory in the travesti role of Adriano. At least we are spared the solecism of Sawallisch’s baritone transposition, but she still sounds very feminine in tone for an adolescent nobleman, with a rather fruity lower register. She is fine but rather laboured in Gerechter Gott!, one of the only two substantial solo ‘arias’ in the whole opera. She negotiates her decorations with care rather than delicacy. One is robbed of the opportunity to mention the only other female role in the opera, the Messenger of Peace in Act Two, since this is one of the passages totally omitted here. Sawallisch at least realised the importance of this section of the music.
The other male roles are taken pretty competently although Struckmann’s lower register at CD 2 track 6 3.58 is seriously lacking in the necessary weight. Given the layout of the concert performances the brassy orchestration is often too loud, too enthusiastic and too forwardly balanced to allow the vocal lines to come over clearly. The chorus are incisive if rather backwardly placed, but there are not really enough of them to bring off the sheer weight of the massive choral effects which are an essential part of Wagner’s grand opera armoury. The excommunication of Rienzi at the end of Act Four sounds frankly feeble.
No, for a truly complete recording of Rienzi there still remains only one option in the catalogues – Hollreiser’s 1976 Warner EMI set, also now available also as part of the bumper DG box of the complete Wagner operas. The singing there was far from ideal in many places, but it does at least give us the full score as Wagner published it. The Downes broadcast version (rather better sung) seems to have currently disappeared from the catalogues. If you can track down a copy it will at least give a reconstruction of the score as Wagner originally wrote it, which has an interest of its own. As it is, this ‘potted’ version simply cannot compete, although the audience sound enthusiastic enough at the end.
Paul Corfield Godfrey