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Richard Wagner: Rienzi, die letze der Tribunen
07 Jan 2011

Rienzi on DVD

Wagner and Verdi were born within 6 months of each other. Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen comes from 1840, and could in some ways be Wagner’s Simon Boccanegra.

Richard Wagner: Rienzi, die letze der Tribunen

Rienzi: Torsten Kerl; Irene: Camilla Nylund; Steffano Colonna: Ante Jerkunica; Adriano: Kate Aldrich; Paolo Orsini: Krzysztof Szumanski; Cardinal Orvieto: Lenus Carlson; Baroncelli: Clemens Bieber; Cecco del Vecchio: Stephen Bronk. Berlin Deutsche Opera Chorus and Orchestra (chorus master: William Spaulding). Sebastian Lang-Lessing, conductor. Philipp Stölzl, stage director and set design. Ulrike Siegrist, set design. Kathi Maurer and Ursula Kudrna, costume design. Recorded live from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010.

ArtHaus Musik 101521 [2DVDs] | 101522 [Blu-Ray]

$39.99  Click to buy

In this new DVD of Wagner’s Rienzi — the first ever full filming — from Deutsche Oper Berlin with Torsten Kerl as Rienzi, the overture is outstandingly well staged. Rienzi is alone looking out at a giant panorama of the Alps. The majesty of the mountains overwhelms : this is real power. In comparison, Rienzi’s nobody despite his status. At first he looks out imperiously, then does a dramatic acrobatic backflip. He starts to “conduct” the music he — and we — hear. Eventually the mountains transform into a vision of the world seen from space. The imagery is at once valid in itself, yet it also seemingly mimics the globe scene in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Indeed, throughout this production references to early film abound.

Don’t assume, though, this is “only” Berchtesgaden. The Alps can be seen just as clearly from Northern Italy. Strictly speaking, Rienzi isn’t really Italian, since the text is based on an English novel by eminent Victorian Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The subject’s universal — a “man of the people” versus established order who himself gets corrupted by power. Throughout this production, directed by Philip Stölzl, there are references to the early 1920’s, to early film and design. Futurism started in Italy long before the First World War. It’s preoccupation with technology and mass movements found fruit in Russia after 1917, and in German Expressionism. Since the United States was not at war with Germany when The Great Dictator was made, he had to widen his references to include other forms of fascism. Mussolini, for example, wore the white uniform Rienzi wears in this production, and which Chaplin used in his film. Rienzi is about power and the abuse thereof. It could happen anywhere. Indeed the idea of art and designer style as a tool of politics is even more relevant now, in an age of mass media manipulation.

Hence the references to film and propaganda. As Rienzi becomes more caught up with power, his hold on reality loosens. Image-building takes over. The man of the people becomes a huge face projected above the regimented, conforming masses. Theatre becomes a substitute for real life. See how the stage becomes divided. “Public” on top, “private” bunker below, where Rienzi and his intimates function pretty much alone. On the DVD, this split screen effect is particularly good as the lower part resembles film cells rolling on loop. Personality-cult dictatorships have always known the power of image creation, from Napoleon to Mao Zedong. What is the role of the artist in society? This production raises questions, from Sergei Eisenstein for Lenin and Leni Reifenstahl for Hitler.

Torsten Kerl is an excellent, charismatic Rienzi : plenty of forceful volume, yet able to convey the character’s inner virtues. He’s no simplistic stage villain. Wagner builds humanity into the part so Rienzi’s sympathetic. If he were truly ruthless, he’d have wiped out the Colonnas. Kerl’s “Allmächt’ger Vater” is particularly delicate,but throughout the opera, the non-vocal parts are surprisingly contemplative, almost dreamy, as though Wagner understands the value of being visionary. The long non-vocal passages are by no means background, but part of story. This production illustrates them without being intrusive, respecting their oblique nature. Kerl plays with “toy” houses (like empire builders and town planners do). He doesn’t have to sing but his boyish innocence suddenly breaks through the iron man exterior. At the end, Rienzi’s faith seems to rest in the ultimate good of mankind, even though he’s destroyed.

Sebastien Lang-Lessing conducts knowing how important these almost symphonic interludes are in shaping meaning — deft, understated but not overshadowed by the big vocal numbers. Kate Aldrich is an outstanding Adriano Colonna, agile, vibrant, passionate. What a part this is, wavering from one loyalty to another, always on the brink of extreme sacrifice! Aldrich’s voice expresses intensity, her acting the mercurial frisson in the part. This opera is Adriano’s tragedy almost as much as it’s Rienzi’s. Camilla Nylund does well as Irene, though the role is less demanding, and Ante Jerkunica’s a solid Colonna. But it’s the crowd scenes that impress. They’re wonderfully costumed and choreographed. Sometimes the singers march like automatons, the “ideal machine” of Futurist iconology. Sometimes they’re grotesques with masks straight out of caricature. Or Carnival, gone wrong. The singing is equally good. Mechanical precision, even in the mad scenes, showing the crowd as mindless monster.

Although Rienzi is relatively neglected, despite receiving more frequent productions in Europe, this superb new DVD could change that. At 156 minutes, it’s obviously cut from the four hour original, but that may not be a bad thing. The Sawallisch recording with René Kollo is the benchmark, but this performance is edgier and tenser — much closer to the horrible truths in the drama. Kerl’s excellent, making the purchase worthwhile for his sake alone. This performance (filmed live) is also so vivid, it’s a brilliant introduction to an aspect of Wagner that might have been had the composer chosen another direction.

Anne Ozorio

 

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