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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL OPERA REVIEW
Wagner, Rienzi : Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus Deutsche Oper Berlin. Conductor: Sebastian Lang-Lessing. Deutsche Oper Berlin, 10.2.2010 (JMI)
Direction: Philipp Stölz.
Co-Director: Mara Kurotschka.
Sets: Ulrike Siegrist, Philipp Stölz.
Costumes: Kathi Maurer, Ursula Kudma.
Film: Momme Hinrichs, Torge Moller.
Rienzi: Torsten Kerl.
Irene: Camilla Nylund.
Adriano Colonna: Kate Aldrich.
Steffano Colonna: Ante Jerkunica.
Paolo Orsini: Krzysztof Szumanski.
Cardinal Orvieto: Lenus Carlson.
Baroncelli: Clemens Bieber.
Cecco del Vecchio: Stephen Bronk.
Production Photograph © Bettina Stöẞ
Rienzi is one of the most controversial operas that any theatre can offer, in a sense. To the discussion concerning its musical quality and Wagner’s own rejection of it, has to be added the obvious parallelism between the figure of Cola de Rienzo and the fascist dictatorships of the twentieth century, particularly Hitler and Mussolini.
Rienzi is certainly an uneven work but personally I think it is worth approaching without any kind of prejudice. It was Wagner’s first true success and without it, it is even possible that the rest of his work might not have become particularly well known. The question of the continuing veto at Bayreuth is another controversial point too: personally I would like it to be lifted, especially considering that it was Cosima and not Wagner himself who originally imposed it.
Because of recent history, it is almost impossible for any stage director to avoid comparisons with the 20th century, while it is also inevitable that such comparisons will be most sensitive in certain countries, particularly in Germany. Philipp Stölz’s new production grasps this nettle firmly,controversy and all. I have only seen one production of Rienzi before and this was Nicholas Hytner’s in London in 1983. He took much the same line as Stölz, although focused on the figure of Mussolini rather than Hitler as Stölz does here. I do not remember any scandal then, but that was in England, and it seems to me that the only way of avoiding problems in much of Europe would be to offer Rienzi in concert version, with consequent losses. As it happens, allowing for personal objections from part of the audience, this new Deutsche Oper production is a magnificent stage work.
During the overture we see Rienzi in the famous Berchtesgaden “Eagles
Nest” complete with a huge window with a view of the Alps. Like Hitler, Rienzi seems to be enjoying Wagner’s music and there are also other allusions in the production to the Chaplin film The Great Dictator. Irene reminds us of Eva Braun
to a great extent and Rienzi’s rise to power and its impact on the people, is symbolised by changing their coloured costumes into black and white uniforms. The Colonnas’ conspiracy and their pardon by Rienzi becomes an act of propaganda, with the dictator posing with each of the conspirators for film cameras, although later we also see film projections of their executions. The first part of the opera ends with a speech from Rienzi on a big screen, within a documentary called "Das Neues Rom", which leaves no doubt that we are not in Rome, but in Germany.
In the second half we witness the fall of Rienzi with a stage set on two levels: the upper one shows the people suffering the consequences of the war, with the dictator’s henchmen rounding up all available men to defend the city, while there are more projections of Rienzi speeches which now simply the people's disdain. On the lower level there is a bunker, where we see Rienzi, Irene and the dictator’s followers, playing with megalomaniac models of buildings. Further "New Rome" projections leave no doubt as to its location: the Grosse Stern and the Reichstag’s Dome announce it clearly. After the people’s revolt triumphs, Rienzi leaves the bunker but then returns to it, after being stabbed by Adriano. In his final aria, Rienzi plays with his models and bombs and after his final exit from the bunker he is killed by the mob. Inside in the bunker, Irene is executed while Adriano Colonna survives.
Philipp Stölz’s stage direction was extremely impressive, especially the crowd scenes. Costumes are very well-suited to his vision of the opera and the video projections are excellent, playing the same important role as they played in
much 20th century propaganda. There are inconsistencies between libretto and what we see of course, and some situations are not easy to understand - like the fact that Colonna and Orsini are on stage at the end, after we thought they had been executed at the end of the first half. So, regardless of personal
- and completely understandable - objections by some members of the audience, this seems to me a magnificent production, truly worth seeing.
The musical version used was not the original of course, but a shortened one, lasting only two hours and forty minutes. A Leipzig production reviewed by my colleague Jim Pritchard in 2007 was some 40 minutes longer.
The German conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing was in charge of the musical direction and his reading - full of strength and energy - drew a magnificent sound from the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, perhaps the best performance during this Wagner week. Mr. Lang Lessing put a lot of effort and dedication into this score and the result was bright and convincing even though there is no question that this opera is a mixture the good, the mediocre, and the very good indeed. Overall, the production and the musical performance combined sustained audience interest and special mention is due to the Deutsche Oper Chorus, who were absolutely outstanding. Their musical performance - always at the highest level – coupled with their amazing massed stage work, was truly great. There is no other word.
The protagonist Rienzi was sung by the tenor Torsten Kerl of whom I should say at once, that he had no problems at all with the role’s tessitura. He had some difficulties with vocal projection in the first half, where he had to sing from the middle and the back of the stage but was much better in the second half, singing from the bunker, and the front of the stage. He also turned in some amazing stage work and was a very good Rienzi, all told.
His sister - their relationship in this production isn't clear - Irene was the Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, who sang a good performance with an attractive lyric voice, fine stage presence and acting in a role that is not, in fact, particularly demanding.
The American mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich however was the star of this cast as Adriano Colonna. Dramatically, the character is somewhat ambiguous and not at all the traditional hero. She produced a very pleasant voice, not over large, but was an excellent singer full of good taste and passion. She received the loudest cheers of the evening.
The secondary characters offered rather lower quality and some vocal unevenness. Ante Jerkunica as Steffano Colonna and tenor Clemens Bieber as Baroncelli were both good while Krzysztof Szumanski was a sonorous and coarse Paolo Orsini. Lenus Carlson, as Cardinal Orvieto, was slighlty on the poor side and Stephen Bronk as Cecco went mostly unnoticed.
There was a full house and many hopefuls with “suche karte” notices outside of the theatre. Although the creative team wasn't on stage, there were signs of disapproval both for the production at the intermission and at the end of the opera. The triumph was undeniable for Kate Aldrich and the chorus, and there were also loud cheers for Torsten Kerl, Camilla Nylund and Sebastian Lang-Lessing.
There was a significant presence of foreigners – including me - in the theatre
for this performance. Clearly, despite its problems, Rienzi still creates interest
as well as fermenting passions: both essential ingredients for any opera
José M Irurzun