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Statue of Cola Di Rienzo by Girolamo Masini, erected in 1877 near the Campidoglio
31 Jan 2012

Rienzi, OONY

For the first hour or so of the latest Opera Orchestra of New York venture, a concert performance of Wagner’s Rienzi, I often said to myself, This…isn’t so terrible.

Richard Wagner: Rienzi

Irene: Elisabete Matos; Adriano: Geraldine Chauvet; Rienzi: Ian Storey; Baroncelli: Jonathan Winell; Cecco del Vecchio: Shannon DeVine; Messenger of Peace: Emily Duncan-Brown. New York Choral Society and Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by Eve Queler. Avery Fisher Hall. Performance of January 29.

Above: Statue of Cola Di Rienzo by Girolamo Masini, erected in 1877 near the Campidoglio


The orchestra sounds good, lovely rich string sounds that prefigure Tannhäuser, and coarse versions of Wagner’s endless modulation, continually reworking musical material to disguise his slight melodic gift. But it went on and on, brass choirs and brainless choruses, lovers rejoicing or denouncing, nobles sulking and plotting, and it was difficult to be sure which singer was playing which role; no synopsis was provided and, in Wagner’s libretto from a Bulwer Lytton novel about fourteenth-century Roman politics, only the three leads have any individuality.

Rienzi rates a single paragraph in Ernest Newman’s Wagner as Man and Artist. Newman loved Wagner, and his books are the best front-line tomes for background and analysis. He approved Wagner’s distinction between the “romantic operas” (up through Lohengrin) and the “music-dramas,” and when he said Wagner was the greatest opera composer who ever lived, he meant aside from the total-art-works in their higher realm. Yet even Newman (who has a ten-page warm spot for Das Liebesverbot) couldn’t come up with a kind word for Rienzi. “Almost offensive” and “a sheer failure of the imagination” are his dicta on the opera’s musical language. “It is astounding how few phrases there are in all these six hundred pages.” He grudgingly admits the “rampant horse-power vigor” of the overture (the only bit of the work we generally hear), then returns to its “vulgarity, its intolerable prolixity.”

I can’t disagree with this assessment, though Rienzi does offer the intriguing spectacle of youthful genius finding himself…and not quite getting there yet, just as Mozart does with Mitridate or La finta giardiniera. And, to be fair, Rienzi achieved just what its composer desired: A hit at its premiere, it remained popular for years, whereas Fliegende Hollander and Tristan took decades to enter the general repertory. From the chatter around me, I gathered that the house was full of last-minute attendees, lured by a spate of ten-dollar tickets, and that these newbies were happy with what they encountered, with the performance’s sheer busyness. Can opera lovers be so shallow that huge performing forces in colorful costumes and martial formation making a huge noise in a huge room, the power of mere spectacle, overwhelms refinement of taste? Well, you know the answer to that one.

William_Holman_Hunt_-_Rienz.gifRienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother by William Holman Hunt

The Met last gave Rienzi in 1890; 122 years do not justify any call for its revival. Opera Orchestra of New York has given it in concert four times now, at least two more than curiosity could merit, but Eve Queler loves operas that have lots of moving parts, brasses scattered around the room, choral groups marching up and down the aisles, a long organ solo, and Rienzi gives her all that. Wagnerians used to sneer at Rienzi as “the greatest Meyerbeer opera,” but that is because they do not know Meyerbeer’s tuneful, elegant, dramatically pointed scores. The only thing Meyerbeerian about Rienzi is its grotesque length. (Queler cut it significantly, of course: An uncut Rienzi could last five hours easy.) Rienzi’s repetitiveness, the thrill in exploiting its slight substance, no one would deplore more than Meyerbeer, unless it be the mature Richard Wagner. Effects without causes—that’s what we have here.

The 27-year-old composer, weary of being an underpaid, over-indebted opera conductor and critic, wanted to demonstrate he was ready for hardball with the big boys. You know: Spontini, Auber, Halévy… Too, he wanted to write an opera on imperial themes to set pre-unified Germany afire, and he wanted to set it in Italy because … well, because. But he hadn’t yet visited Italy. So the local color of his medieval Rome is very beer hall. A loud beer hall. A loud, smoky, Germanic beer hall. Hitler is said to have adored Rienzi, but too much need not be made of that: He also adored Die Meistersinger and The Merry Widow.

So the orchestra was okay on this occasion, and the choruses rather good, but what of the singers? Ian Storey, a well-known mediocre Tristan, was in appalling shape, not an unforced tone all day. As no announcement of ill health was made, one must assume he just wasn’t up to the stentorian title role, though he sounded very sick and Queler may simply not have had a replacement handy. (Who learns this role any more? Why bother?) Geraldine Chauvet in the musico (i.e., trouser) role of Adriano Colonna—the only character in the opera with a dash of personality—had a far happier day and the applause to go with it. She sang the Prayer that is the only vocal number ever excerpted from Rienzi, and though not entirely in charge of it, produced fine phrases in a yearning style and got through her Wagner turns, the composer’s favorite ornamental figure, with credit. Elisabete Matos, who made a thrilling Met debut last year in Fanciulla del West but is better known in Europe for dramatic roles, sang Rienzi’s sister and Adriano’s girlfriend, Irene, a one-(very high)-note idealistic personality whose soprano must cut through the orchestra like a gleaming bread knife. Matos had the sheen and was usually on the right pitches, and her final, suicidally heroic outburst implied that she’d sing one hell of a Senta if she got the chance. Among the lesser figures, baritone Shannon DeVine and soprano Emily Duncan-Brown distinguished themselves.

John Yohalem

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