Wagner’s Rienzi is really quite an interesting work. It follows the conventions of the French grand opera rather than the more integrated structure of most of the later works, although as presented in Toulouse in 2012 some of those elements, for example the ballet, have been removed in the interests of cutting the work down to manageable size. Even with the Toulouse cuts it runs three hours.
The plot is complex and episodic with two main threads intertwining; Rienzi’s rise to and fall from power and the romantic relationship between his sister Irene and the noble Adriano Colonna. I’s nominally set in the 1300s and is based on a novel by Bulwer-Lytton about a historical figure in Rome, Cola di Rienze. Basically Rienzi raises the people against the feuding aristocracy and establishes a republic under the church with himself as Tribune of the People. The aristocrats attempt to retake power and Rienzi defeats them in battle killing the leaders of both noble factions including Adriano’s father. For reasons that aren’t totally clear (something to do with denying German princes a vote in an Imperial election?) the Church turns on Rienzi and excommunicates him. He makes a last stand in the Forum which is burnt down by the mob. Everybody dies. Throughout Adriano is torn between his love for Irene and his sense of obligation to the Colonna clan.
Jorge Lavelli’s production is nominally brought up to the present day but the aesthetic is more graphic novel than realistic with pancake make up, masks and rather weird costumes. He also prefaces the work with newsreel footage during the overture of various more or less successful uprisings from Russia in 1905 to Tiananmen Square. I don’t know whether or how this was shown in the house but it works on disk. Overall, the production is effective enough, especially when it comes to things like crowd scenes, of which there are many. Torsten Kerl’s characterization of Rienzi is interesting. He ‘s like a rather bumptious head prefect; very sure of himself and given to big gestures. Certainly he dominates the stage whenever he’s around, which is most of the time. Daniela Sindrom as Adriano and Marika Schönberg as Irene are quite convincing as the (almost) lovers. Their slightly overwrought acting adds to the generally not quite naturalistic nature of the piece.
Musically Rienzi is all over the map. The title role is very Wagnerian; loud, long and with rather a high tessitura. Kerl manages it really well and still sounds fresh at the end of the evening. Other bits sound very Wagnerian too. The beginning of Act 5 could have been lifted from Tannhäuser. Maybe some of it was reused. Other bits sound like Meyerbeer. There are very rumpty tumpty marches and choruses and the “Messenger of Peace” in Act 2 gets a very French sounding aria. And then at other times the work seems to be harking back to bel canto. Adriano gets some very bel cantoish music and Irene’s aria in Act 5 could almost have been written by Donizetti. It must be very challenging to sing for all the principals. The title role is a real marathon but in some ways Irene is even more challenging; Lucia one minute and Elsa the next! Ms. Schönberg really handles this very well. The chorus (the Choeur du Capitole augmented by the La Scala Academy) has tons to do and does it really well. Good work too from the augmented orchestra of the Capitole under Pinchas Steinberg, who balances things nicely. I think it would be all too easy to cover the singers in this piece.
Denis Caiozzi’s video direction is pretty good. he captures the crowd scenes well and only occasionally feels the need to jazz things up with trick shots. On Blu-ray the picture is excellent and it needs to be. There are some big dark scenes and I really wonder how they would look on DVD. The sound (DTS-HD) is exemplary. There’s an organ in the orchestral mix and this recording faithfully captures the low notes in a way I’ve seldom heard on a video recording. The booklet is a bit disappointing with just a very brief synopsis and a brief essay. In such an unfamiliar work a track listing or, better, a cued synopsis would be nice. Subtitle options are English, French, German and Korean.
There is almost an hour of bonus material on the disk and it’s worth watching, preferably before the main feature. There are interviews with creative team and cast that shed a lot of light on why they decided to do the piece at all, why they made the cuts they did and why they positioned the work dramatically as they did. There’s also some useful discussion of the vocal challenges involved.
There are only two video recordings of this work. The other, from the Deutsche Oper, also features Torsten Kerl in the title role and sets the piece in the 20th century. It’s even more heavily cut than the Toulouse version. I rather suspect that either would make a pretty decent introduction to this interesting, if uneven, piece for anyone interested in exploring pre-canonical Wagner.