29 Aug 2006
I can readily understand why Bayreuth refuses to perform Richard Wagner’s third opera.
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Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.
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Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
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I can readily understand why Bayreuth refuses to perform Richard Wagner’s third opera.
The maestro himself took his distance from this work, even though the opera had clocked more performances during his lifetime than all his other opera’s (sorry Gesamtkunstwerken). But this was not at all uncommon. Puccini and Verdi distance themselves from many of their early operas, such as Le Villi, Edgar, and Il Corsaro. And so the Wagner of Tannhäuser has his detectable roots in Rienzi.
Of course, there are quite a few differences as well that the Wagner family probably didn’t want to remind their audiences of them. After all, Rienzi has an interesting historical topic as a subject instead of the silly humbug of Der Ring. Once upon a time Wagner tried to “out-Meyerbeer” Meyerbeer, but nobody in the family wants the public to know that the maestro followed the examples of other composers. Then there is the treatment of the human voice. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau once said that in Wagner’s best known operas “we singers have the honour of accompanying the orchestra” while in Rienzi the vocal line is still supported by the instruments. And, this is really too awful a truth to admit, the maestro even enjoyed writing a long 38-minute ballet without the excuse that the Paris Opéra obliged him to. Admittedly, there are some tedious moments in the opera when the wind section blows too long and too loud, when the choruses repeat themselves or when the melodic inspiration in concertati is sagging but on the other hand there is far more inspired music than Wagner himself acknowledged, such as the fine duet between Rienzi and his sister in the last act.
But to discover this and more, a good recording such as this issue is helpful. More than that, it is the only recording that gives us a real idea what Rienzi is all about. The four CD’s total 4 hours and 41 minutes. An interesting historical issue with Treptow and Eipperle plays for 2 hours and 48 minutes; that’s almost 2 hours of music cut. Even the best commercial recording up to now (Sawallisch – Kollo) gives the listener one hour less of music. This performance is the Dresden version, where the composer made some cuts after he himself found the successful première a bit long (more than six hours though with intervals).
Though this is an entirely British and Commonwealth cast, it is a strong one. John Mitchinson never had the morbidezza necessary for Italian roles, though I heard him sing a very fine Verdi Requiem. Nevertheless, he has a strong, big stylish voice easily riding the orchestral climaxes and the infamous Bayreuth bark is not to be found in his interpretation. His German is quite good too and he is an impressive Rienzi. Maybe Lorna Haywood’s voice is a shade too light for the long role of Adriano, the lover of Rienzi’s sister (at La Scala tenor Cecchele sang this role in a horribly mutilated version with Di Stefano). Yet Haywood brings a wealth of experience in Italian opera with her, and this is evident in the fine legato, the sweet sound in an opera, which after all was still firmly embedded in the French-Italian tradition. Lois McDonall as Irene has the bigger voice, and she too was a good Verdi and Puccini soprano and knew how to bring belcanto to a role. Her first act duet with Mitchinson is outstanding, and the voices of the two women blend. All the other singers are well-known names from Covent Garden and the English National opera and they bring their experience to roles they probably never performed anywhere else.
For many years Edward Downes was a household name at Covent Garden where he conducted hundreds of well-reviewed performances, often after the star conductor had left. To opera lovers in the rest of the world, he was mainly known for his inspired accompanying of singers in recitals such as the début albums of Bruno Prevedi and Luciano Pavarotti. Fed up with his London assignments, he went to Sydney to conduct for the Australian opera company. Rienzi was not his first Wagner discovery, as this was only part of a prestigious project by BBC North. But in May of 1976 Downes conducted concert performances of Wagner’s first-born Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot (both available on Ponto), followed by this Rienzi one month later. Downes knows how to shape the music, and, as he was very well versed in Italian Grand Opera, he is completely at ease. He doesn’t drown his singers and succeeds very well in getting over some tedious moments. It’s not his fault that some choruses or marches are a bit loud — Wagner probably thought that the more wind instruments the better the score.
Warmly recommended, especially to the Wagner family who, with the exception of Eva who wanted this opera to go on in Bayreuth, still cling to their outdated dogmas.