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Richard Wagner: Rienzi — Der Letzte der Tribunen
16 Jun 2011

Wagner’s Rienzi in Berlin

The Voltaire maxim usually given in English as “The perfect is the enemy of the good” illuminates the artistic conflicts surrounding many a Wagner production.

Richard Wagner: Rienzi — Der Letzte 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

With such large operas — in duration, cast, theme, and more — the viewer is best prepared to enjoy any production by foregoing Apollonian expectations. Wagner held himself to very high standards, of course, and one early victim of his search for perfect artistic self-expression was his opera Rienzi — Last of the Tribunes. Created around the same time as The Flying Dutchman, Wagner decided later that Rienzi fell into his early growth period, while Dutchman marked the beginnings of his artistic maturity. So Rienzi was banned from the Bayreuth canon, and indeed the opera has seldom been staged elsewhere, although there are some historic recordings available. What has kept the opera’s title alive is the popularity of its overture in performance and on classical music radio stations. The stirring nobility of the main theme and then the energetic propulsion of the middle section must have led many a listener to be curious about what the opera would be like, seen staged.

An answer — if partial — can be found in the ArtHaus DVD of a 2010 Deutsche Oper Berlin performance, directed by Philip Stötzl. Wagnerian perfectionists face two daunting challenges in enjoying the best of this staging: first, the radically edited version of the score created as the basis of this performance, and second, Stötzl’s decision to forego the setting and even tone of Wagner’s libretto for the sort of modern theatrical interpretation often described, not to say derided, as “regie.”

Set in 14th century Rome, Wagner’s original libretto had a sprawling cast of characters engaging in multiple subplots, but Stötzl cut away everything except the central story of the Roman tribune Rienzi, who becomes a hero to the people when, with the backing of the Church, he faces down a civil revolt. Somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to take leadership and find a final resolution to the conflict. A key member of one of the opposing factions, Adriano, falls in love with Rienzi’s devoted sister, Irene. Adriano pledges support to Rienzi, but other members of the rebelling factions attempt an assassination. Rienzi survives, but then he becomes as autocratic and oppressive as those he sought to subdue. Ultimately, civil war breaks out again, and Rienzi is killed, along with his sister Irene, who chooses her brother over Adriano, leaving the young man bereft.

That much of the story Stötzl communicates very clearly, but he does it through the iconic images of the Third Reich (although there is no specific Hitler parallel in Rienzi’s appearance). Under the overture, a gymnast in a fat military suit cavorts around a huge desk, a homage to Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator playing with a globe-shaped balloon. In his white suit and pulled back hair, Torsten Kerl as Rienzi has a quasi-Mussolini affect, but even from the beginning he seems unstable and unreliable as a force for bringing others together. His dissolution carries no tragic force, therefore, but tragedy is not Stötzl’s aim. The best of the score is known through that famous overture; otherwise, this is indeed early Wagner, the anarchic master locked into the rigid forms of a Meyerbeerian grand spectacle. Stötzl’s menacing yet comical tone turns out to be an effective gambit. And Kerl deserves a lot of credit, singing out with sustained power and thrust, but also fully invested in the production’s atmosphere. Kerl rivets the attention, even if the character often repels it.

In appearance Camilla Nylund is almost too spot-on as Irene — tall, attractive and blonde, Nylund embodies what might have once been called a vision of feminine Aryan beauty. She also physically overwhelms Kate Aldrich in the pants-role of Adriano, but Nylund doesn’t supplant Aldrich as a vocalist. Aldrich sings with great precision and passion, in a type of role that Wagner would never attempt again. While effective, Nylund lacks any special character to her soprano.

Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing doesn’t allow any of the score’s many edits to disrupt a potent, melodic flow. And for once a disc’s “special feature” is truly special — a 20-minute “making of” documentary that actually has interesting interviews and rehearsal glimpses that give a good sense of how a complex staging such as this comes together. Look for the moment when Nylund asks Stötzl why Irene doesn’t approach Rienzi when her libretto line states she is coming to his side, and a momentarily exasperated Stötzl points out that the production is far from literal. Whether one sympathizes with the singer’s inquiry or the director’s response, the exchange shows the kind of involvement of all parties that resulted in this unusual and frequently exciting production. Recommended.

Chris Mullins


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