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(Sep 28, 2010)
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Richard Wagner's early opera 'Rienzi' is stylistically closer to Meyerbeer and bel canto than to Wagner's later masterworks. Yet even this early work especially as presented in this recording is 'so fantastically beautiful that it takes one's breath away' (Berliner Zeitung). And in this staging by Philipp Stölzl, who condensed the five-act opera into a little over two hours, 'Rienzi' becomes a startlingly powerful and timeless parable of power and abuse. Though the story of the rise and fall of a charismatic leader and his totalitarian regime takes place in 14th-century Rome, Stölzl sets it somewhere in the recent past. The topic 'anticipates the history of the 20th-century in a visionary way', says Stölzl, adding that 'one can make surprising analogies to many despots of this time: Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Ceausescu...' Since film was a central propaganda tool of 20th-century totalitarian systems, Stölzl uses film projections to make the 'tribune' Rienzi tower above the masses or, in the style of old newsreels, to show a utopian 'New Rome'. It is, after all, with films that Stölzl began his career: directing video clips for Rammstein and Madonna, then directing feature films ('North Face', 'Goethe!') and staging operas at major venues, including the Salzburg Festival. Tenor Torsten Kerl, who has visibly studied the gestures of the 20th century's major dictators, gives a brilliant and eloquent Rienzi; his dutiful sister Irene, sung by Camilla Nylund with great lyrical intensity, is paired with a lover, Adriano, interpreted by the luminous mezzo Kate Aldrich, 'the discovery of the evening' (Süddeutsche Zeitung). Also worthy of lead-role status is the chorus, which masters its demanding part with stunning presence and accuracy. The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin is led with exuberance and precision by young conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing.
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Yes, the work is brought up into the 20th century and casts Rienzi as a fascist dictator. But it works. Due to the cuts this streamlined Rienzi makes more of an impact than the sprawling original.
The musicians are quite good. The singers are effective actors. The conducting keeps the work moving. Don't hold your breath for a complete Rienzi. This production makes a good case for the opera. All Wagnerians should check it out.
Fortunately, this is a very entertaining production. Admittedly, cuts have been profound and sweeping; out of the five hour original only 2.5 hours remain. I'm not familiar enough with the full version to comment on whether the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater, but to my ear, what was left was strongly Wagnerian, with none of the fluff described in many accounts of the original. Clearly, the scenes have been selected to match the premise, that Rienzi was a proto-Führer. Again, I don't know whether this is a distortion of the original.
The opening scene, where a somewhat acrobatic body double performed during the overture, was reminiscent of Obersaltzberg, complete with panoramic window and Mussolini fireplace, although the director, in the 'making of' interview, claimed that this wasn't intentional. Much use was made throughout of a bi-level stage, with the main action taking place above the lower section - a concrete bunker. There was also copious use of monochrome video, giving a strong flavour of Leni Riefenstahl.
Musically splendid, with some outstanding performances. Torsten Kerl was the perfect despot, incorporating many of the mannerisms of those chaps from the beginning of last century.
Kate Aldrich, as Adriano was amazing. Just amazing.
On a second viewing, there was a particularly strong scene where the chorus removed their grotesque masks, and normal street clothes, and replaced them with uniforms, complete with stylized 'R' symbols. The individuals were now identifiable, but made anonymous by the costumes.
The more I watch this, the more I like it.