Before her appointment to co-direct the Bayreuth Festival, Katharina Wagner was quoted as speculating that her great-grandfather’s juvenalia, Rienzi, might claim a place in the repertory of the house. Soon after her appointment, her production of Rienzi in Bremen was greeted with skepticism and dismissal. Yet a recent production of the work directed in Berlin by Philipp Stölzl makes a strong argument that Rienzi deserves to be reassessed by a wide audience.
The work that von Bülow called “the greatest opera Meyerbeer never wrote” was Wagner’s first success. While popular in its time, Rienzi later caused Wagner distress. Cosima noted in her diary (June 20, 1871) that Wagner eventually regretted the work (“It is very repugnant to me”), but its success in its Dresden premiere was essential to Wagner’s progress as an artistic figure in Germany, and its admiration by Adolph Hitler is revealing of both the meglomania of the despot and the low level of the music.
(Seeing it in 1905 in Linz, Hitler fell in love with Rienzi, and requested, and was given, the manuscript as a 50th birthday present from Winnifred Wagner in 1939. He had it with him in the bunker when he died six years later, and it was destroyed in that conflagration. Few appreciate the implications that it was not Meistersinger, but rather Rienzi, that formed the artistic center of Hitler’s admiration of Wagner. As can readily be seen in his paintings, Hitler’s instincts were better fit for murder than for art.)
All the more fitting that the Berlin production shows the rise and fall of a dedicated Italian fascist. Forming the vision that the people must be saved from tyranny and violence, Rienzi summons the courage to do so, eventually confusing social peace with charismatic despotism, and himself falls victim to the people’s revenge. The story is told in compelling 20th century terms, using film and video projections, costumes, choreography and dramaturgy to great theatrical effect.
The two-act version used in Berlin was prepared by the stage director and Christian Baier. While not a deep expert of the full score, I found Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s conducting to be serviceable without thrill. Camilla Nylund, on the other hand, tears the place up with a brilliant, loud and sensitive Irene. Torsten Kerl is a capable and charismatic Rienzi; one is reminded of the hilarious scene in Brecht’s Arturo Ui when the nebbish is given lessons in acting in order to learn how to be seen as a tyrant.
This production has prompted me to place Rienzi in the list of Wagner works I would be eager to see performed again and again. (I certainly can’t say that for Flying Dutchman.)