Even some die-hard Wagnerian would rarely or ever care to listen to anything before Der Fliegende Holländer – and Rienzi’s grand-opéra style and Italian setting might be rather unsettling for those used to valkyries riding flying horses. That said, in spite of its gigantic length, the opera reserves many hidden treasures in its event eventful plot and full-power score with its large-scale ensembles and vocally challenging main roles. It is only fitting that this work deserved a whole new production in the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Wagner Wochen.
Adolf Hitler had a fancy for Rienzi – he even had a manuscript score in his bunker. This historical fact might have given director Philipp Stölzl the idea of relating the demagogic and equivocal Tribune Cola di Rienzi to the Führer and, to a certain extent, to the Duce. The connection is not unfounded – Rienzi seduced the people of a dilapidated nation and promised the restoration of its imperial status by the glorification of an idealized past and belligerence. However, it does not seem that Rienzi was a lunatic, but would rather deem himself well-meaning in his intent to raise a Rome ravaged by a self-interested elite and revive the rule of law. Portraying him as a childish deranged mind, with the excuse of quoting Charles Chaplin, is ultimately reducing the discussion to the simplistic explanation of insanity. In other words, making Rienzi a comical figure has the effect of belittling the social and historical phenomenon as mere folly, while History shows that the likes of Hitler or Stalin were not joking. And if the director is not ready to make a valid parallel, why making it in the first place? Better leave poor Rienzi in his XIVth century.
All that said, Stölzl’s staging has its qualities. First of all, it looks grandiose enough and that is something grand opéra cannot part with. The two-level set depicting Rienzi’s bunker and a public space dominated by a large screen on which Rienzi’s speeches are exhibited is visually striking. The use of film is aesthetically effective and benefits from the leading tenor’s histrionic talents. Although there is a bit too much clownishness in the approach, Torsten Kerl embraces the direction with gusto. It is a pity though that tiny wrong decisions finally undermine the interesting concept – the staged overture (should we stress again that this rarely is a good idea?) showing a stupid choreography (and again?) for Rienzi (!), wobbly and wrinkled flats, poorly synchronized slow-motion scenes and an Adriano portrayed as an awkward boy (let’s not forget that this was Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient’s role). Worst of all, we all know that the score is invariably cut for performances – but those should be determined by musical values. Here Wagner’s music is ruthlessly cut in order to help the director force his ideas on the plot. Act 5 is pared in such uneconomical way that one could hardly understand what was going on – Rienzi’s excommunication is almost left to imagination and Irene and Adriano’s relationship is reduced to kindergarten complexity.
The title role is a challenge to casting – it requires a heroic voice that should preside above very large ensembles and that should work in some low-lying declamatory passages and also almost classical poise to deal with the grupetti and legato demands of moments such Almächt’ger Vater. Torsten Kerl may lack the volume of a true Heldentenor, but his focused, forceful tenor finds no difficulties in this writing and the tonal quality is healthy and pleasant. He phrases with imagination and has crystalline diction. He should be an ideal Lohengrin and I would be curious to see his Kaiser in the Florentine production of Die Frau ohne Schatten in May. But I wonder how wise it is to tackle Siegfried (Paris, 2011).
Although the role of Adriano is in the limits of Kate Aldrich’s resources, she did not seem fazed by the role’s difficult demands. She sang with affection, offered a stylish account of her act III aria (shorn of the difficult passage that stands in for a cabaletta soon after) and acquitted herself rather neatly in high-lying dramatic passages. Camilla Nylund found less comfort in the role of Irene, which is too high for her voice in the first place. Her opaque high register would gain the minimally necessary brightness and roundness during the opera. In her last interventions, she would even produce some rich acuti. Among the minor roles, Ante Jerkunica proved to be a convincing Stefano.
Replacing an ailing Vladimir Jurovsky, maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing offered an urgent account of the score, generating energy rather from bright-toned orchestral sound and clear articulation, for he wisely avoided heaviness and thickness, helping his light-voiced cast in many key passages. The orchestra had, however, its untidy moments, especially with brass instruments, but never showed itself less than animated. However, the excellent house chorus takes pride of place for its truly exciting performance – musical and dramatic values taken with same engagement and precision.