Wagner's Rienzi (1842) is seldom staged today. It is very long, lasting over five hours. It is not filled with Wagner's most distinguished music, despite the fact that the glorious Der fliegende Holländer followed just three months later at the same Dresden Court Theatre — now the Semper Oper. Some critics have called Rienzi Wagner's worst opera.
The initial reception in 1842 was however rhapsodic, and there were further, cut-down performances throughout Germany; the public apparently did not subscribe to the idea of paying for two evenings of the same opera, an idea Wagner entertained. Derived from a Bulwer-Lytton novel, Rienzi or the Last of the Tribunes by rights should have been done in Paris as a grand, Meyerbeerian affair — which in certain respects it resembles. Wagner even did a French translation of his own libretto for this purpose.
But 150-plus-years later it has received a riveting production in Berlin at the Deutsche Oper. Directed by film-music video-opera helmer Philipp Stölzl, the medieval-Italian Rienzi plot has been reconceived as a 1930s' fascist parable, with its hero looking like Mussolini but behaving like Hynkel in Chaplin's 1940 film, The Great Dictator. The production uses what appear to be grainy newsreels to tremendous effect, conveying a charitable public picture of a dictator and his entourage, with banners waving, and much patriotic propaganda. (Ironically, the manuscript score of Rienzi was in Hitler's possession until the end of the war.)
The opera begins with its tuneful, comparatively well-known overture staged in what appears to be the Führer's Berchtesgaden aerie, with the dictator looking like Jack Oakie, rolling around a table and doing somersaults, and even playing with a huge globe in the manner of Charlie Chaplin. It ends in a bunker, with the leader playing with an Albert Speer-ish model of the future Rome, and still broadcasting positively when all is hopeless and his lynching is imminent.
The massive, 1930s-monumental, mostly grey monotone sets of Ulrike Siegrist and Stölzl (who was trained as a set designer) are impressive, and the costumes of Kathi Maurer and Ursula Kudrna make dramatic points as well. What appear to be the July 20th conspirators against Hitler (here Roman noblemen against the dictatorship) are led off to their executions by maidens dressed as Bund deutscher Mädel girls - or were they concentration-camp matrons?
Although the advance brochure for the Wagner-fest showed a woman in Roman armour, it would difficult to imagine a modern audience being as caught up in the story had the original locus been utilized. The Nazi slant, although occasionally almost a parody of the actual plot, proved more arresting.
With the score cut virtually in half (or worse), conductor's Sebastian Lang-Lessing managed the high spots of the score brilliantly, and the Deutsche Oper chorus had several exciting moments as well under director William Spaulding. Vivid performances were given by German tenor Torsten Kerl in the title role, all bluster and later fear, and another silvery one by Camilla Nylund, the Finnish-born soprano, as his Eva Braun-like sister Irene. Maine-born mezzo Kate Aldrich, furnished with a machine-gun, received a huge hand from the audience for her lovely performance in the breeches role of Adriano.
Rienzi was part of an ambitious 'Wagner Weeks' series programmed by the new, Scots head of the DO, Donald Runnicles. For Rienzi, he deserves nothing but praise. But a performance seen several days later of Die Meistersinger, a remnant of the former Götz Friedrich regime, though well-sung, seemed tired and thin by comparison. The Peter Sykora sets were cute, no more - and some fairly light voices were present in roles where one wants a bit more gravity, like Walther von Stolzing (Klaus Florian Vogt) and Beckmesser (Markus Brück). Runnicles' conducting yielded variable orchestral precision; it was difficult to believe that I was hearing in the same Deutsche Oper ensemble I had heard earlier that week. But the chorus members, managed to rise to the Wagnerian occasion.
By Richard Traubner
Photo credit: Bettina Stoess im Auftrag der DEUTSCHEN OPER BERLIN
Rienzi: Torsten Kerl
Irene: Camilla Nylund
Adriano: Kate Aldrich