March 20, 2014


Wagner: Rienzi. Peter Bronder, Christiane Libor, Falk Struckmann, Claudia Mahnke, Daniel Schmutzhard, Alfred Reiter, Beau Gibson, Peter Falk Bauer; Chor der Oper Frankfurt and Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester conducted by Sebastian Weigle. Oehms. $39.99 (3 CDs).

     Finally, finally, there is a worthy modern recording of Wagner’s huge, magnificent, formulaic, flawed and tremendously impressive third opera, Rienzi. At last there is a version of this opera worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the excellent Staatsoper Dresden performance conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser, recorded in 1974 and 1976. The new Frankfurt Opera release on Oehms, a live recording from 2013, is still not quite at the level of the Dresden performance, but it is more than good enough to deserve listeners’ cheers, and will be a particular pleasure for those who prefer modern all-digital sound to the analog sound quality of Hollreiser’s rendition.

     Rienzi is huge, very difficult to stage – requiring a multiplicity of solo voices of uniformly high quality, plus complex sets – and manages to be both forward-looking and thoroughly stuck in its own time. It is quite understandable that opera companies are reluctant to deal with it – even Cosima Wagner could not quite figure out how to make it appealing to audiences that had heard Wagner’s later works, although she tried. It is even understandable, although less so, that the opera is so neglected in recorded form. Producers simply think it does not repay the difficulties inherent in making it available.

     Yet Rienzi is enormously effective when well sung and conducted, as it is in the new Oehms release. Listeners will hear in it early use of leitmotifs, although they are certainly not as integrated into the score as they would later be, or as closely identified with underlying psychological themes. Some of the beauty of Senta’s love sacrifice in Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner’s next opera, is already present in Rienzi, and there are inklings of the trumpet sounds and the conflicts caused by sworn oaths that would become the basis of Der Ring des Nibelungen. At the same time, there is a good deal of excellent music that places Rienzi firmly within the time of its première, 1842, and holds it there. It is strictly a by-the-numbers opera (16 numbers in all); its overarching theme partakes of the historical and the monumental, setting an individual story of love, loss and vengeance within the broad context of a significant time in history; and it is filled with choral prayer, battle music and even pantomime – all elements expected by audiences seeking the thrilling entertainment of grand opera.

     In these elements, Rienzi is very much of its time; Hans von Bülow famously called it “Meyerbeer’s best opera,” and it does have considerable superficial similarities to Meyerbeer’s works, although perhaps even more to Auber’s La Muette de Portici, the sprawling 1828 work that inaugurated the era of grand opera and that shares with Rienzi themes of revolution and of the rise and fall of a single charismatic leader. The music of Rienzi also has Italianate elements, as did that of Wagner’s prior opera, Das Liebesverbot, in which the composer came as close to channeling Rossini as he was ever to come. And in his insistence in Rienzi on multiple solo roles, Wagner was looking back to his first opera, Die Feen, which in turn reflected many of the designs and concerns of Heinrich Marschner. So Rienzi is a derivative work, but it is also a clearly transitional one for Wagner, and it is easy, with hindsight, to see how elements of Rienzi brought Wagner to Der fliegende Holländer (still an opera by the numbers) and thence to the later through-composed music dramas.

     The Oehms recording features very fine singing in all the solo roles, with especially strong performances by Peter Bronder as Rienzi and Christiane Libor as his sister, Irene. Claudia Mahnke handles the trouser role of Adriano, Irene’s lover, effectively, and the heads of the noble families of Colonna (Falk Struckmann) and Orsini (Daniel Schmutzhard) come through with the right mixture of stentorian proclamations and Machiavellian self-interest. The chorus is particularly fine, reflecting the populace’s role both in Rienzi’s overnight success and in his equally precipitous fall from grace. And Weigle leads the orchestra and vocal forces with a sure hand, pacing the action somewhat slowly so that it builds effectively without dragging.

     This is not to say that the release is without flaws. For English speakers, a significant one is that Oehms – as is its usual practice – offers the complete libretto, but only in German. A more serious one, though, and a primary reason not to discard the Hollreiser recording, is that the Oehms set includes almost nothing but the musical numbers, eliminating virtually all the connecting recitatives and scenes, and thus gives a false impression of the opera’s pacing and Wagner’s storytelling (he wrote the libretto himself, based on a German translation of a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton). This is no small matter: the three Oehms CDs last a total of two-and-a-half hours, while the three that EMI produced of the Hollreiser production last more than three-and-a-half. Rienzi is truly a grand opera, and Hollreiser makes that abundantly clear in a way that Weigle does not. Nevertheless, the lack of a strong modern recording of Rienzi has long been a major one, and Oehms has now filled the gap with a more-than-respectable, well-sung and well-played reading that hopefully will serve to introduce Rienzi to Wagner aficionados who do not yet know any of its music beyond its very well-wrought overture. It is an opera whose acquaintance is well worth making.

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