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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2013

…[Stölzl’s Rienzi]…is still, far and away, the most brilliant and dramatically powerful performance of the opera I’ve ever seen or heard. Some of this is due to Stölzl’s brilliant management of crowd scenes…Some of this is due to the excellently sung and acted performance of Torsten Kerl as Rienzi, a tenor with a virtually inexhaustible high range…Certainly, another major factor is the absolutely riveting impersonation of mezzo Kate Aldrich as Adriano…But much of the real fire in this performance comes from the podium. Lang-Lessing is, for me, one of the most gifted Wagner conductors I’ve heard in the present day. He injects life and lift into every phrase, orchestral or vocal, in the opera and manages to pull the disparate threads of this massive work together like no one else I’ve heard of late.

…thanks in some measure to the direction and the singing-actors, but especially to the conductor, you’ll be on the edge of your seat from start to finish in this brilliant performance. And that makes it…something that deserves to be in the collection of everyone who enjoys brilliant music theater. © 2013 Fanfare Read complete review

Chris Mullins
Opera Today, June 2011

WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (NTSC) 101521
WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101522

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.

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.

Mike Ashman
Gramophone, March 2011

WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (NTSC) 101521
WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101522

this new release…provides a committed and well-sung preview of Rienzi’s attractions in a lively production.

Tim Pfaff
Bay Area Reporter, February 2011

Rarely performed operas have an eerie way of resurfacing at times when they once again have something to say. The Deutsche Oper Berlin production of Wagner’s Rienzi, recently re-released in a two-DVD set preserving a live performance almost exactly one year ago (Arthaus Musik/Unitel Classica), chillingly mirrors today’s news, in which a succession of longstanding Middle East dictatorships—Egypt most conspicuously, others in the region, too—are falling, their leaders being called out.

Coming when it did in Germany’s ongoing, long-term rapprochement with its sinister past, the Berlin production of Rienzi re-set its story—of a populist “hero” who sought to unite the people of 14th-century Italy, became their leader, and was overthrown and killed for having gone too far (but done too little)—in an indefinite mid-20th-century, which no one could fail to see as Hitler’s Third Reich. Philipp Stoelzel’s high-impact, hugely watchable, masterfully musical production makes the best possible case for the opera.

Rienzi has had a tough time of it since WWII, but the opera the 26-year-old Wagner composed in 1840, which had its premiere in Dresden two years later, held the boards regularly enough that it could consume the imagination of Adolph Hitler when he saw it in Linz in 1907. As Katharina John points out in her sage notes, “Both the plot and the musical form became a sort of hagiographic template for Hitler.” The “Heil, Rienzi” from Wagner’s libretto, for example, was the source for “Heil, Hitler,” and the loss of Wagner’s original score is due to the fact that it was in Hitler’s personal possession.

Wagner, who for all his sins cannot be held accountable for Hitler’s tastes, himself turned his back on the work, in the five-act French grand opera style, in favor of the vastly more original The Flying Dutchman, which he composed at the same time. But as the ace musical performance by the Berliners under conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing makes clear, Rienzi is far from bad music (we hear much worse in the opera house on an alarmingly regular basis) and warrants an outing when a production with as much to say as the Deutsche Oper’s comes along.

The production team’s single strongest stroke of advocacy could go unnoticed. It cut and spliced Wagner’s five one-hour acts into two parts (Rise and Fall, basically) with a total running time of two and a half hours. At that, you hear music that could as easily fallen on the cutting-room floor, but I watched it, completely riveted, on a single night with only the one prescribed break (at the DVD change)—twice.

The visuals are transfixing. The highly flexible, visually fluid sets are in a startling array of styles—more than should be able to mesh, though they do brilliantly. Painted flats forcefully suggest a modern metropolis, its brutalist architecture rendered in cartoon strokes, primary colors, and dizzying, M.C. Escher-ish designs. But far more imposing are the film segments, brilliantly doctored to look “historical,” that present the Rienzi story as it might have been imagined by Leni Riefenstahl. At the story’s critical junctures, they dominate the stage picture in a crushingly propagandistic way.

Visually, the production is a Gesamtkunstwerk, from the lighting to the astonishing array of costumes. The very large and musically stupendous Deutsche Oper chorus is onstage throughout the performance, and each chorister is vividly costumed, first in a riotous range of styles and then, as they fall deeper into the thrall of their leader, militarist uniformity. The masks alone in this production could eat up a smaller company’s entire budget.

But as happens in only the greatest of opera productions, the direction is so detailed and penetrating that you don’t see a single person on the densely populated stage who doesn’t know precisely who she or he is. Even though you can never take in all the detail, the dramaturgical center holds thanks to the searing, enveloping consistency of Stoelzl’s vision.

Tenor Torsten Kerl and soprano Camilla Nylund give magisterial performances of the huge, demanding, and largely thankless roles of Rienzi and his sister Irene. (Gay Heldentenor Maz Lorenz made a WWII-era recording of the opera’s one famous aria, Rienzi’s “Allmaecht’ge Vater,” so great it’s become like Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma,” a curse on every tenor who’s sung it since.) As actors, they bravely and successfully insinuate an incestuous, Siegmund-Sieglinde-like love between their characters.

Wagner only adds to the many ambiguities in the Bulwer-Lytton novel on which he based his libretto. A particularly fascinating innovation was writing the young aristocrat Adriano as a mezzo-soprano trouser role. That adds a frisson to the character’s passion for Irene that the Berlin production is clearly happy to underscore, and the brilliant American mezzo Kate Alrich, a SF Opera Carmen in 2006, makes it sizzle.

Anne Ozorio
Opera Today, January 2011

WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (NTSC) 101521
WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101522

Wagner and Verdi were born within 6 months of each other. Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen comes from 1840, and could in some ways be Wagner’s Simon Boccanegra.

In this new DVD of Wagner’s Rienzi—the first ever full filming—from Deutsche Oper Berlin with Torsten Kerl as Rienzi, the overture is outstandingly well staged. Rienzi is alone looking out at a giant panorama of the Alps. The majesty of the mountains overwhelms: this is real power. In comparison, Rienzi’s nobody despite his status. At first he looks out imperiously, then does a dramatic acrobatic backflip. He starts to “conduct” the music he—and we—hear. Eventually the mountains transform into a vision of the world seen from space. The imagery is at once valid in itself, yet it also seemingly mimics the globe scene in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Indeed, throughout this production references to early film abound.

Don’t assume, though, this is “only” Berchtesgaden. The Alps can be seen just as clearly from Northern Italy. Strictly speaking, Rienzi isn’t really Italian, since the text is based on an English novel by eminent Victorian Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The subject’s universal—a “man of the people” versus established order who himself gets corrupted by power. Throughout this production, directed by Philip Stölzl, there are references to the early 1920’s, to early film and design. Futurism started in Italy long before the First World War. It’s preoccupation with technology and mass movements found fruit in Russia after 1917, and in German Expressionism. Since the United States was not at war with Germany when The Great Dictator was made, he had to widen his references to include other forms of fascism. Mussolini, for example, wore the white uniform Rienzi wears in this production, and which Chaplin used in his film. Rienzi is about power and the abuse thereof. It could happen anywhere. Indeed the idea of art and designer style as a tool of politics is even more relevant now, in an age of mass media manipulation.

Hence the references to film and propaganda. As Rienzi becomes more caught up with power, his hold on reality loosens. Image-building takes over. The man of the people becomes a huge face projected above the regimented, conforming masses. Theatre becomes a substitute for real life. See how the stage becomes divided. “Public” on top, “private” bunker below, where Rienzi and his intimates function pretty much alone. On the DVD, this split screen effect is particularly good as the lower part resembles film cells rolling on loop. Personality-cult dictatorships have always known the power of image creation, from Napoleon to Mao Zedong. What is the role of the artist in society? This production raises questions, from Sergei Eisenstein for Lenin and Leni Reifenstahl for Hitler.

Torsten Kerl is an excellent, charismatic Rienzi: plenty of forceful volume, yet able to convey the character’s inner virtues. He’s no simplistic stage villain. Wagner builds humanity into the part so Rienzi’s sympathetic. If he were truly ruthless, he’d have wiped out the Colonnas. Kerl’s “Allmächt’ger Vater” is particularly delicate,but throughout the opera, the non-vocal parts are surprisingly contemplative, almost dreamy, as though Wagner understands the value of being visionary. The long non-vocal passages are by no means background, but part of story. This production illustrates them without being intrusive, respecting their oblique nature. Kerl plays with “toy” houses (like empire builders and town planners do). He doesn’t have to sing but his boyish innocence suddenly breaks through the iron man exterior. At the end, Rienzi’s faith seems to rest in the ultimate good of mankind, even though he’s destroyed.

Sebastien Lang-Lessing conducts knowing how important these almost symphonic interludes are in shaping meaning—deft, understated but not overshadowed by the big vocal numbers. Kate Aldrich is an outstanding Adriano Colonna, agile, vibrant, passionate. What a part this is, wavering from one loyalty to another, always on the brink of extreme sacrifice! Aldrich’s voice expresses intensity, her acting the mercurial frisson in the part. This opera is Adriano’s tragedy almost as much as it’s Rienzi’s. Camilla Nylund does well as Irene, though the role is less demanding, and Ante Jerkunica’s a solid Colonna. But it’s the crowd scenes that impress. They’re wonderfully costumed and choreographed. Sometimes the singers march like automatons, the “ideal machine” of Futurist iconology. Sometimes they’re grotesques with masks straight out of caricature. Or Carnival, gone wrong. The singing is equally good. Mechanical precision, even in the mad scenes, showing the crowd as mindless monster.

Although Rienzi is relatively neglected, despite receiving more frequent productions in Europe, this superb new DVD could change that. At 156 minutes, it’s obviously cut from the four hour original, but that may not be a bad thing. The Sawallisch recording with René Kollo is the benchmark, but this performance is edgier and tenser—much closer to the horrible truths in the drama. Kerl’s excellent, making the purchase worthwhile for his sake alone. This performance (filmed live) is also so vivid, it’s a brilliant introduction to an aspect of Wagner that might have been had the composer chosen another direction.

Paul Pelkonen
Superconductor, January 2011

This DVD presents a bold re-interpretation of this early opera by Richard Wagner. The title character is re-imagined as a 20th century dictator with a uniform fetish, who rises to power on the back of the common people, only to be killed in an underground bunker in the last act. (Sound like anyone you’ve heard of?) It’s fitting that this brilliant staging by Philipp Stölzl was filmed at the Deutsches Oper Berlin in 2010. It’s the first Rienzi on video, and the first essential Wagner DVD to be released in some time.

Rienzi is Wagner’s third opera. It is his longest work: (five acts, six hours) a gigantic grand opera in the manner of Meyerbeer. Philipp Stölzl cut the score severely for this performance, chopping out ballets, finales, choruses, processions, and whole swaths to get it down to a lean two and a half hours. The truncation of the score is clever, if ruthless.

This music is very different from mature Wagner. He wrote it when he was 26, and by time the opera was premiered (eight years later) the ever-restless composer had moved on to Der Fliegende Höllander and was already planning Tannhäuser. The Deutsches Oper Berlin orchestra plays brilliantly under the baton of Stephen Lang-Lessing. The decision to retain Wagner’s early (and sometimes clumsy) orchestrations intact gives the work charm and shows the care that went into this performance.

Heldentenor Torsten Kerl gives a moving performance in the title role, singing with a high, penetrating tone that blooms into moments of sweetness. This part has hellish difficulties written into it by the young, ambitious Wagner. Much declamatory singing is required, forcing the tenor to be heard over a heavy orchestra. Mr Kerl rises to the challenge, soaring to an impressive height for the moment when Rienzi rejects the crown in Act Two.

His best singing is in the final act, during Rienzi’s prayer. This famous scene (its main theme is the backbone of the Overture) unfolds with a warm outpouring of tone as it rises to its climax. In the final scene, Mr Kerl loose with his full instrument, and the effect is devastating.

Soprano Kate Aldrich is a potent figure in the trouser role of Adriano Colonna, the would-be assassin who is also in love with Rienzi’s sister Irene. As Irene, soprano Camilla Nylund sings with hard, bright tone that fits the role of Rienzi’s chief lieutenant and collaborator. There is the chilling suggestion of incest in their sibling relationship. The other star of this show is the Deutsches Staatsoper’s main and auxilary choruses, who do remarkable work in this opera’s many public scenes.

The production makes extensive use of back-projected films by fettFilm (Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs). Cribbing from the films of Leni Riefensthaal (most notably Triumph of the Will) the films are used as on-set propaganda and a narrative device throughout.

The costume design (by the team of Kathi Maurer and Ursula Kudrna) is also clever. In the second act, the onstage mob of Roman citizens takes off their civilian colors to reveal chiaroscuro uniforms, emblazoned with the “Diamond-R” rune that serves as the symbol of Rienzi’s government. As the dictator comes to power, all color is bled out of Rome. The effect is terrifying.

Rienzi was Hitler’s favorite opera. In 1905, the 16-year-old dictator-to-be attended a performance in Linz, Austria. That may have inspired much of the iconography, (and some of the the political philosophy) adopted by the former house painter as he led Germany down the path of genocide and destruction. So it’s understandable that it doesn’t get performed much. By re-imagining the work in this radical new way, the creative forces behind this staging may have actually redeemed it. Wagner would have been pleased.

Tim Pfaff
Bay Area Reporter, December 2010

Wagner’s first opera, the rarely performed Rienzi, was captured in a brilliant staging from the Deutsche Opera Berlin (Arthaus Musik) I’ll review in detail soon. Richard Jones’ misfire of a production of Lohengrin for Munich (Decca) was, in proper Wagner fashion, redeemed, and more than, by Jonas Kaufmann’s masterful first outing in the title role (which he promptly took to Bayreuth). Goetterdaemmerung, last opera of The Ring, was revealed in all its glory in a concert performance by Mark Elder and his Halle Orchestra on its house label. © 2010 Bay Area Reporter

Anne Shelley
Music Media Monthly, December 2010

Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen is set to Wagner’s self-written libretto and based on a novel of the same name by the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton. One of Wagner’s earliest operas, Rienzi was composed around 1840 and premiered in Dresden in 1842. The character of Rienzi, a fictitious protagonist of fourteenth-century Rome (the entire title of the opera translates to “The Last of the Roman Tribunes”), acted as a natural idol for those engaged in political opposition leading up to the German Revolution of 1848. Through the opera’s many performances into the twentieth century, Rienzi’s leadership continued to touch those who sought a similar path; a young Adolf Hitler first heard Rienzi in 1905 in Linz, Austria. He likened his own political ambitions to those of the folk hero, so much so that he invoked phrases such as “Heil Rienzi!” and used the overture as an unofficial theme song of the Third Reich.

Having incorporated entire marches, ballets, and battle scenes, Wagner conceived Rienzi to be the grandest of grand operas, one that would be impossible to stage in a small theatre. The five-act show typically lasted over six hours, but it was well received, with 200 performances given in Dresden alone by 1908. This condensed production—the first recording of Rienzi released on disc—is delivered in less than half that time. Philipp Stölztl, whose work prior to directing operas and feature films involved directing music videos for Madonna and Rammstein, delivers a modern interpretation of Rienzi by transporting the Roman characters into an amalgamation of the middle decades of the twentieth century. Name your favorite autocrat of the time, and that is who Rienzi seems to represent. The staging, costumes, lighting, strategic camera work, and a giant screen backdrop upon which interactive film clips are projected all combine to give this visually-stunning production the look of a feature film. Torsten Kerl’s portrayal of Rienzi is convincing and vocally powerful, yet it is American mezzo Kate Aldrich’s performance of Adriano that steals the show. Highly recommended.

Robert Benson, December 2010

WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (NTSC) 101521
WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101522

Wagner’s early opera Rienzi has several important recordings featuring leading Wagnerians of the past, but this is the only DVD—and this is really not Rienzi. Philipp Stölzi is responsible for this staging that eliminates much of the opera (it is now 2 acts instead of 5) and updates the story to the era of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, using newsreels and projections. During playing of the overture, we see Rienzi seated in front of a screen. He soon begins to “conduct” and rather resembles a lumpy version of Charlie Chaplin in that famous scene from The Great Dictator. Singers are excellent throughout, with particularly fine work from the chorus. Video and audio are up to today’s highest standards, but Wagner deserves better than this. A questionable “bonus” is a 26-minute justifying this production.

Simon Thompson
MusicWeb International, December 2010

The conventional wisdom on Wagner’s Rienzi is that it is unperformable. It is famously long and unwieldy—it’s Wagner’s longest work, and for him that is saying a lot! The composer himself eschewed it in his later years as being unworthy of being performed at the shrine of Bayreuth. None of this, however, stopped the Deutsche Oper from mounting their own production early in 2010 and it has already become somewhat legendary. Now you can make up your own mind about it with this DVD.

The production has two main merits. Firstly it is a new performing edition created by director Philip Stölzl and his assistant Christian Baier and they have slashed the score down to a running time of just over 2½ hours. This gets rid of much of the most ponderous material and makes it palatable for a single evening. Wagner himself, by the way, always recognised that its length was a problem and in the 1840s had originally floated the idea of performing it over two nights, an idea that was justifiably unpopular with the Dresden audiences as it would effectively have had them paying twice for the same opera.

Its second great merit is the interpretation of the production and it is for this that the DVD really deserves to be noticed. Gone is the original setting of 14th Century Rome with its power politics and factional rivalry—though, for reasons of integrity, the name of Rome is maintained in the libretto. Instead we are placed firmly in 1930s Berlin and given a savage dramatic analysis of the power of the dictator to entrance a population. From the very start we see Rienzi sitting in his private study, gazing out over a view that would put many in mind of Hitler’s Berghof. The backdrop of Act 1 is reminiscent of a painting by George Grosz and, as Rienzi takes power, we see film footage and, later, models of Berlin’s Reichstag, Siegessäule and Albert Speer’s monstrous Germania building. For most of the performance the backdrop consists of a huge cinema screen with propaganda images being projected onto it, be they images of Rienzi’s speeches, his visions for Das Neue Rom, or wartime production lines. The footage has been carefully modelled on Leni Riefenstahl’s films for Hitler, most notable The Triumph of the Will, something the video directors admit they based their work on. Rienzi is swept to power on a wave of popular approval then begins to remake Rome in his own image. He sends his people on a meaningless war and then spends the whole of the second part (the original Acts 3—5) in his bunker beneath the streets before, in the final sequence, he is dragged out and lynched.

Not everyone will like this interpretation, and there were predictable boos from the audience when the production was premiered, but to my mind it works tremendously well. Rienzi himself bears some striking parallels with Hitler—helped, no doubt, by selective editing in preparing the performing edition—and it does not feel as though the production has been squeezed into a straitjacket: instead it is a genuinely sensitive and useful updating, something that reminds us that opera in general and this work in particular still have something to say to us today. The fact that the location of the show was only just down the road from the original Führerbunker must have made it pretty close to the bone for the Berlin audiences and I still found it powerful to watch from the armchair.

The performances themselves are uniformly strong. Torsten Kerl, who was Tristan in Glyndebourne’s most recent production, sings like an old-fashioned Heldentenor with a magnificent ring to his voice. True, he sounds a little pinched as the evening wears on, but the voice never loses its sheen and the prayer in Act 5 still sounds convincing, despite the evident strain he is under. His sister (and lover?), Irene, is played magnificently by Camilla Nylund. Her appearance is so Aryan as to make the parallel with Eva Braun obvious, but her voice is heroic and steely and has the power to make the scalp prickle in her various declamatory scenes. American mezzo Kate Aldrich sings the breeches role of Adriano, Irene’s lover and the son of one of Rienzi’s aristocratic rivals. She, too, is magnificent with a lovely sheen to the top of her voice and a rich centre that captures Adriano’s torn loyalties most convincingly. The other roles are all taken well, especially Bieber and Bronk as Rienzi’s disloyal henchmen.

Dramatically speaking, therefore, the work is very convincing; but what of its music? I’m afraid the conventional wisdom is broadly correct on this one. Even in its abbreviated form Rienzi feels long and its many triumphal marches and patriotic choruses can wear a little thin at times. Furthermore the orchestral colour lacks almost any of Wagner’s later inventiveness: big and bold seem to be the two keynotes, and the sung moments are too much in the stand-and-deliver style. None of this stops the performers from giving it their all, though, and the Deutsche Oper Orchestra do a great job at playing and shaping it seriously. I think, however, that this opera is one to watch as well as to see, particularly in this version. For the sheer involvement factor of having the visuals as well as the excellent singing this automatically replaces the only other complete version of the opera that is easily available, that on EMI with Hollreiser and the Staatskapelle Dresden, though the EMI is more complete. If you really want to explore Wagner’s first success then you shouldn’t hesitate in acquiring this DVD.

Richard Traubner
Opera News, December 2010

WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (NTSC) 101521
WAGNER, R.: Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101522

Wagner’s early opera Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes is famous for being one of the few unfamiliar works in the composer’s oeuvre, but it also has the distinction of being the longest, longer even than Götterdämmerung. The opera was based on a British novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton about an uprising in Rome in the mid-fourteenth century, and it ascribes to certain then-contemporary trends, like the grand Parisian operas of Meyerbeer and Rossini, not to mention Auber. Yet it was apparently Hitler’s favorite Wagner opera, and the autograph score was burned in the bunker along with the dictator, who thought he was a sort of twentieth-century Rienzi, unifying his people to their utter glory.

Taking this as his cue, director Philipp Stölzl (with Christian Baier) has taken the libretto and score and reconceived them for this exciting production, which had its premiere at Deutsche Oper Berlin last winter, and which this writer saw in performance there. Now in two parts, instead of the original five acts, the score has been more or less halved, so Wagner purists may object, harshly.

But the rest of us can only admire this brilliantly conceived portrait of a dictator, not unlike Hitler or Mussolini, goading his citizens to a frenzy of nationalistic fervor, followed by wartime misery.

Using the clever device of fake newsreels and riffs of patriotic cinematic paeans such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, not to mention Stalinist film propaganda, the backdrop is a continuously moving portrait of the dictator—often filmed on the spot on the stage, but projected with the grainy images familiar from 1930s newsreels. Tenor Torsten Kerl, as Rienzi, looks like Mussolini, and his gestures often recall the exaggerations of Jack Oakie in the Chaplin parody of Mussolini in The Great Dictator. These are especially potent when shown silently, played against a Wagner march.

During the overture, however, this Mussolini creature is planted firmly in Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest over Berchtesgaden, dreaming of world conquest and even managing several somersaults, timed meticulously to the stirring music.

Stölzl’s direction offers other memorable images. The transformation of the chorus from grotesque Weimar-era decadence (achieved by constructivist scenery and distorted costumes and masks) to uniform SS troops and Bund Deutscher Mädel nurses is hauntingly done. Irene, Rienzi’s sister, parades around lovingly (and not entirely chastely) as a sort of Eva Braun, complete with braided hair and padded shoulders, dressed in white 1930s fashions. The makeup of most of the characters is chalk-white, to more effectively show up in the newsreel footage, adding a ghostly look to the proceedings.

In the second part (a condensation of the original Acts III to V), the action is played on a split-level stage, with a bunker beneath Rome on the bottom level. As the war on the upper level gets increasingly grim, and his subjects increasingly hostile, Rienzi, mimicking the enfeebled Hitler at the end of the war, continues to spout patriotic exhortations while playing like a child with Albert Speer-like models of a fascistically redesigned “New Rome.”

Kerl, as Rienzi, sings heroically, and Camilla Nylund is a fetching, super-fascist Irene. The most applauded vocal performance was turned in by American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, in the breeches role of Adriano, lover of Irene and son of one of the plotters against Rienzi. In the original version, these subversives are pardoned after Adriano and Irene intercede—only to return to destroy Rienzi. In this version, you see film footage that shows them immediately shot, individually, after Rienzi has magnanimously pardoned them in public.

Other roles are very capably taken, but the real star of the production is the supersized chorus, which is kept very, very busy, and which sings with overwhelming power when required. The conducting by Sebastian Lang-Lessing is consistently tense and exciting, loosening up beautifully for such moments as the prayer by Rienzi (“Allmächt’ger Vater”) in the final scene.

There is a fascinating documentary about the making of this production at the end of the second disc, which explains the director’s vision, and the English titles for the opera are very well done. Special credit is also due to those who produced the film footage used during the performance.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, October 2010

Of all the possible stage adaptations of opera plots to evoke 20th-century totalitarianism, this one fits like an iron fist in a black-leather glove.

Richard Wagner was 29 when, in 1842, he saw the premiere of his first successful opera, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes. He had adapted an 1835 novel about 14th century Italian popular leader Cola di Rienzi, who rose as a champion of the people against the aristocracy, only to be corrupted once in power. It all ends up unhappily for him.

The closest recent European parallel would be Benito Mussolini, but this Deutsche Oper Berlin production from earlier this year leaves no Leni Riefenstahl moment unexploited as it references Nazi Germany. This is a total-immersion experience that packs a powerful, visceral punch.

The two main sopranos are spectacular—Kate Aldrich in the young-hero trouser role of Adriano, and Camilla Nylund as the Rienzi’s loyal sister, Irene. Tenor Torsten Kerl plays the arc of Rienzi’s story brilliantly. The chorus is powerful and the orchestra crisply evocative under conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

Because this is early Wagner, this is a more traditional opera in the 19th-century French style, with a progression of arias, choruses and recitatives, all on a grand scale—here cleverly tightened up by director Philipp Stölzl.

This 2-DVD set is augmented by an excellent, 25-minute making-of featurette.

Ercole Farnese
Parterre Box, September 2010

Stage director Philipp Stölz, who started his career directing video clips for (among others) Madonna, is unable to resist the temptation to view Rienzi’s life and career through the lens of the dictatorships of the 20th century. There is a definite link between the opera and this period: Stalin used to have the overture played during his military parades, and Hitler’s worship of this score is well known. It was his favorite opera, and he owned the manuscript, which most likely was destroyed in his bunker the day of his death...Stolz sets the action in the late 1930s, and his protagonist is a cross of Mussolini, Hitler and perhaps Stalin, or, better, a caricature of them. More often than not, Stolz’ dictator is evocative of Charlie Chaplin’s Hynkel. His Rienzi has very little, if anything, in common with the tragic hero imagined by Bulwer-Lytton and Wagner; with bulging eyes, he thrusts his jaw forward in pure Mussolini style. During the overture, a corpulent Rienzi’s stand-in plays with a globe and does somersaults and cartwheels. The Roman people are first represented as grotesque clowns; only after accepting Rienzi’s leadership do they change into black dresses with white aprons (for the women) and into Nazi-style uniforms (the men).

Irene, Rienzi’s sister, undergoes a similar transformation. Wagner’s ingénue becomes a Über-Frau, a sort of a blend between two famous Evas (Braun and Peron) with a touch of Ukraine’s Yulija Timoshenko with her characteristic halo of blond braids. Stölz not too timidly suggests an incestuous relationship between the two siblings, a very Wagnerian theme indeed.

Whenever Rienzi appears on stage, his face is projected on a large screen, so as to suggest that all his life is nothing but a huge photo-op. Stölz also makes ample use of films reminiscent of the old propaganda newsreels.

The ending has been modified as well. Whereas in the original opera Rienzi, Irene and Adriano all die under the collapsing Capitol, in Stölz’ version Rienzi is first stabbed by Adriano and later finished off by the mob, Irene is murdered in the bunker, while Adriano is allowed to survive.

Although Stölz’ approach may be debatable, it is undeniable that he succeeds in bringing to life something extremely theatrical, creative and of secure impact on the audience. I may take exception with his perception and portrayal of Rienzi, but I never got bored.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts with vigor and brilliancy, drawing a glorious sound from the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper. In this opera the chorus is the co-protagonist and Rienzi’s principal interlocutor, and the contribution of the Deutsche Oper Chorus is simply magnificent.

Helden-tenor Torsten Kerl is impressive for his stamina. Rienzi’s role, even in this abridged version, is of monumental arduousness, relentlessly hitting the area of the passaggio and above; Kerl makes it to the end of the performance with no sign of strain due to a iron-clad technique.

Irene is not a memorable part; Wagner did not assign her an aria. This production has Irene often on stage, a first lady to her brother, even when she is not singing. Camilla Nylund brings to the role a fine stage presence, good acting skills but an undistinguished lyric soprano.

Kate Aldrich sings the role of Adriano Colonna, a part created by Wagner’s favorite soprano and muse, the legendary and scandalous Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. Aldrich does not play Adriano as a hero, but rather as an insecure, unconfident young man emasculated by his father’s domination. She has one of those “amphibious” voices that stretch the border between soprano and mezzo-soprano, and therefore a good fit for this ambiguous role. Her instrument, though not large, is pleasing and homogeneous throughout its range. The Berlin audience seems to love her and bestows on her the biggest ovation of the evening.

This production demonstrates that, with all his flaws and weaknesses, Rienzi is an enjoyable work worthy of more frequent appearances.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group