Strange as it may now seem, but during Wagner’s own lifetime, and well into the early 20th century, “Rienzi” was one of his most oft performed works, knocking up over 200 performances by 1908 in Dresden alone, the city in which it was premiered. Nowadays, no doubt, owing in part to Wagner’s own reservations about the work, it has become a rarity. Thanks, however, to a new production by the Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck, there is the opportunity to catch an all too infrequent outing of the opera.
Sumptuous Extravagance on a Small Scale
Written in the style of French Grand Opera, Wagner characteristically claimed that it “should outdo all previous examples with sumptuous extravagance,” and with its large orchestra, a 40-minute ballet scene and huge uplifting choruses, in five acts, he may have grounds for such a claim. However, in this production performed on only a medium-sized stage, and unable to accommodate very large numbers of singers, the effect was unavoidably diminished, which was further magnified by the cutting of the ballet scene. The libretto is based on a 19th century novel by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, itself based upon the real Cola Rienzi, a historical character from 14th century Rome, who rose to become tribune on the back of popular support, and brought the warring noble families under control. However, owing to his ambitions and ruthless power grab he eventually lost everything, and was subsequently murdered by a mob. He is known to have been a complex character with many good and bad personality traits, which included idealism, eloquence and enthusiasm, vanity and an inexperience in assessing people. Wagner’s libretto remains faithful to the overlying historical narrative, although with a few additions along the way to improve the drama.
A “Rienzi” For Our Times
In this production for the Tiroler Landestheater, the director Johannes Reitmeier, shifted the drama to an unspecified 20th century setting, successfully managing to retain a strong focus on the narrrative, whilst at the same time capturing the work’s underlying themes, something which may easily have been lost in a traditional reading; the historical setting and medieval costumes could easily have created a sufficient temporal distance that would have blunted their impact, allowing the audience to view it as something belonging to a bygone age, with little relevance for today. Reitmeier, along with his team of Thomas Dorfler (scenery) and Antje Adamson (costumes) ensured that this was not going to be the case. Their Rienzi was a demagogue, who takes advantage of the anarchic situation to establish himself as a modern day dictator, loved by the people, whom he is able to sway with his grand speeches and beneficent rule. Political rallies with red flag waving, slogans and symbols of his rule become commonplace. Increasingly, however, he finds that more and more violence is required to maintain power, and he retreats into a private life of luxury, drinking, and parties. One can think of many such cases in the 20th and 21st centuries. Eventually, he is overthrown, and in a well-made point, the organisers of the coup d’etat assume power and don his crown. The cycle of oppression continues.
Dorfler’s sets, while not exactly grand, were functional and served their purpose. They consisted of unattractive tenement blocks, typical of communist architecture found in Eastern Europe, Russia or the deprived inner city areas of the West. They were framed by steps or metal fencing. All of which gave them a pretty depressing and squalid feel. In other words, exactly the sort of neighborhoods where the populist opportunist can surface and find support. The first scene opens with the Colonna and Orsini families, dressed in typical mafioso attire of the mid-20th century fighting among themselves, while the deprived populace watch on helplessly. Into the mix walks a guerrilla type character, the freedom fighter, Rienzi, who has the ability and power to transform their lives. So it is that Rienzi through politicking and the threat of violence rises to take control. There are many scene changes over the course of the evening and Dorfler dealt with problem well, by having the sets rotate on a moving circular stage. This kept the drama moving, without any noticeable interruptions and allowed for various changes of scene, built upon the original structures. The costumes, like the scenery, were not lavish, but served their purpose, and helped to define the characters; the warring families dressed as mafiosi, Rienzi and his men as freedom fighters and so on. As Rienzi retreats into a private world of pleasure he swaps his combat gear for a colorful lounge jacket. It all proved an excellent background upon which to play out the drama.
One of the more interesting themes explored by Reitmeier is the attraction which power holds over people and the way in which it corrupts. From the outset, Rienzi is obsessed with idea of becoming Emperor, and during the overture he appears dressed as Napoleon. In fact throughout the performance the image of Napoleon weighs heavily, his image often projected onto the set at moments when Rienzi’s thoughts turn towards power. Rienzi is in a constant battle, along with his sister, Irene, as to whether or not he should take emperor’s crown. He is frequently seen resisting it, wrenching it from his head, while at other times he is all too happy to accept it. Ultimately, he is to die because of this obsession, but of course the obsession doe not die, but simply passes to another would-be emperor.
On the musical side there was a lot to admire, but overall it was unevenly presented. In charge of the musical direction was Lukas Beikircker, who elicited a solid performance from the Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck, drawing out some wonderful textures, and managing to maintain an engaging momentum over the course of the evening. Possibly, the weakest part of the performance, however, was the overture, which is a long piece, lasting over ten minutes and containing five themes with widely differing melodies. Its episodic nature was all too apparent and its overall structure compromised in the process. Apart from occasional loud utterings from the brass section, however, no such problems existed in the main body of the opera. Beikircker was always attentive to the singers needs, and maintained a good balance between the stage and the pit.
Rising Above a Tough Start
In the lead role of Cola Rienzi was the American tenor, Marc Heller. During the first act, although acting out the part convincingly and making a sterling effort, he did not sing well, raising fears that the production as a whole could falter. He struggled to maintain the vocal line and the transitioning between registers was awkward and, at times, even unpleasant to listen to. Nevertheless, he improved significantly following the first interval, and although never freeing himself from the occasional error, sang to a much higher standard. Phrasing his lines with a great deal of finesse, he brought an array of colours and dynamic accents to his singing, and managed to portray Rienzi’s troubled soul with great success. His inner torment, on whether or not to accept the emperor’s laurel diadem, was clearly visible, and his moral descent from the people’s champion to failed demagogue was compellingly expressed. Rienzi’s aria “Allmacht’ger Vater, Blick herab” is not well placed, at least from the singer’s viewpoint, coming as it does in Act five, by which time most singers would be starting to tire. Heller, nevertheless, produced a more than passable attempt, and despite the occasional wobble, was able to convey, through subtle changes in intonation and dynamic inflections, Rienzi’s self-pitying appeal to God to restore his power. To be fair to Heller, he displayed a formidable amount of stamina, in what is an exhausting role; he never failed to give his full commitment to the part, and in the end he came through, and delivered a solid performance, which in parts was excellent.
Two Strong Women
In the trouser role of Adriano was the Canadian singer, Jenifer Maines. She is an excellent singing actress with a powerful and expressive voice, able to convincingly convey the emotional turmoil to which Adriano is subjected. Her Act three aria “Gerechter Gott!” in which he prays for a reconciliation between his father and Rienzi, and his anguish over his divided loyalties, was given an electrically charged delivery in which the meaning of every line of the text was captured perfectly. It also acted as a wonderful showcase for her fabulous technique.
The young German soprano, Josefine Weber, made an excellent impression in the role of Rienzi’s sister, Irene. Torn between her love for Adriano and her loyalty to Rienzi, she eventually opts for her brother. Her motivations are, however, not completely divorced from the idea of being able to play the role of Rienzi’s consort. In fact, Reitmeier’s direction, although not overplaying the idea, hints at a deeper attraction between the siblings, prefiguring the incestuous relationship of Sieglinde and Siegmund. Weber’s deep portrayal was nuanced and finely drawn, capturing the complex psychological impulses that drive the character. She has a powerful soprano, with a beautiful timbre. Her phrasing was intelligently and subtly shaped which resulted in a expressive and compelling performance.
The head of the warring mafioso Colonna family, Steffano Colonna, was played by bass Johannes Maria Wimmer. At the heart of the role is his relationship with his son, Adriano, by whom he feels betrayed. Wimmer’s Colonna was vicious, unbalanced and vain, angered and destabilised by his treacherous son. He took a little time to settle into the part, but when he did, he produced a compelling and engaging performance, supported by a strong, agile vocal display.
In the smaller role of Colonna’s enemy, Paolo Orsini, Joachim Seipp, looking every bit the typical mafioso thug, played out his part well. With his rich, dark and strong bass, he underscored his hard-nosed, single-minded character.
Typical of many dictators of the past, Rienzi is supported in his position by the Church, which of course, withdraws its backing when he is no longer of use. In the role of the Papal Legate, Raimondo was the bass Unnsteinn Arnason. Possessing a pleasing tone, he essayed the part well, singing with authority, although largely ignored by the warring families, and phrased his lines thoughtfully. His only major drawback was that he was often insufficiently audible, and would have benefited from a little more vocal power. Although in Act five, standing high above the crowd, as he excommunicates Rienzi, his voice was clear, firm and powerful.
The two minor roles of Baroncelli and Cecchina del Vechio were played by Florian Stern and Alec Avedissin. Both turned in solid, well-sung and convincing acting performances.
Certainly one of the stand out performances of the evening was the Tiroler Landestheater Chor under the direction of Michel Roberge. It has a large and significant role, and required additional members to bolster its effect, and its effect was, indeed, stunning! Their main role was that of the oppressed citizenry, in which they were mercilessly exploited by all sides, Rienzi their saviour included. When they implored him to become their saviour, their heartfelt suffering was palpable. When singing full voice it enveloped the whole auditorium.
Given “Rienzi’s” infrequent performances, this was a much welcomed opportunity to be able to see one of Wagner’s “rejected” works. Unsurprisingly, it is not an opera to stand comparison with Wagner’s great music-dramas, but nor does it deserve the neglect to which it has been subjected over the last 100 years. This production by the Tiroler Landestheater certainly makes a case for it to be given a more serious consideration. Reitmeier’s vision of the work uncovered a depth that many renowned Wagner scholars have failed to acknowledge, and on these grounds alone this is a production that should not be missed.