Monday, 22 April 2019

Wagner Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes revived in Berlin

Wagner : Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen at the Deutches Oper, Berlin,  reviving the production by Philip Stölzl, with Torsten Kerl reprising the title role as he did ten years ago.  Wagner and Verdi were born within 6 months of each other : two completely opposite strands of opera? Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen comes from 1840 - same year as Schumann Dichterliebe - but the soundworlds could hardly be more different. Rienzi could be Wagner's Simon Boccanegra - massed chorus, heroic arias and a remarkably similar subject.  Rienzi isn't done too often, for many reasons,  but this production is very good indeed. It's well worth seeking out the 2010 DVD. In the DVD of this Rienzi - the first ever- from Deutsche Oper Berlin, 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 an amazing backflip. He starts to "conduct" the music he - and we - hear. Then he crumples into an inept  all.  The whole story, told in simple images against a stunning backdrop. Don't assume this is Berchtesgaden. The Alps can be seen just as clearly from parts of 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. Indeed, it's the first truly "modern" art theory,long before German Expressionisn, art deco and Triumph des Willens.That's Mussolini at right. Even the costumes in this production reference the Fascist Italy. Limit the ideas in this production to simplistic Hitler and you miss its really profound insights. Rienzi is about power and the abuse thereof. It could happen anywhere. And the idea of designer style as a tool of politics is utterly relevant in our new 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. 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 theatre, from Napolean to Mao Zedong to Sergei Eisenstein for Stalin 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 ppassages are by no means background, but part of the story. This production illustrates them without being intrusive, respecting their obliquenature. 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 Adriana’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 Carneval, gone wrong. The singing is equally good. Mechanical precision, even in the mad scenes, the crowd as mindless monster.
At 156 minutes, this poerformance is obviously  cut from the four hour original, but that may not be a bad thing.  Obsessive "purists" can wait another century. The Sawallisch recording with René Kollo is a standard, 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. For all we know, this Rienzi could convert diehard Verdians to Wagner. Haha !
production photos : Joachim Feiguth, Bettina Stöẞ

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