Rienzi in Berlin

Richard Wagner’s third opera, Rienzi, is rarely produced today. It was disowned by the composer and banned forever from Bayreuth. Yet occasionally it is revived, normally in the much-reduced 2½ hour version that was authorized by the composer and had some success during his lifetime.

Wagner enthusiasts have welcomed the new production by director Philipp Stoelzl that is being presented as part of the Wagner Festival at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Rienzi, “The Last of the Tribunes,” is an heroic character who comes to a bad end at the hands of the Roman populace when his misplaced compassion leads to political discord and violence. None of that concept survived Stoelzl’s “rethinking” of the libretto.

Instead we are transported to the 1930s (again) to a time when dictators ruled much of Europe. Rienzi is now a composite Mussolini/Franco/Hitler dictator who cynically manipulates an adoring public of an unnamed state to satisfy his own lust for power. Inevitably he comes to a bad end in a bunker consciously invoking Hitler’s demise in Berlin in 1945.

It is a tale that has been told many times before. Stoelzl’s staging is saved from tedium by its brilliant special effects. Particularly effective are the filmed sequences that stylistically evoke Leni Riefenstal’s unforgettable propaganda films glorifying Hitler’s Reich. We see ostensibly historical clips of Rienzi haranguing the crowd, adoring blonde mädchen, happy workers, resolute soldiers, and the like. Later, as events turn against him, a decrepit Rienzi in his beleaguered bunker plays with models of the kind of monumental structures conceived by Albert Speer for Hitler’s “new Berlin,” including the dome that would have been the world’s largest, had not Hitler’s Berlin been reduced to ruins.

Musically, the performance of February 10 was a triumph. The splendid orchestra was conducted with vigor by Sebastian Lang-Lessing. The chorus, directed by William Spaulding and voted by the critics Germany’s best, got a huge and deserved ovation. The best singing came from American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in the “trousers” role of Adriano, son of the nobility who falls in love with Irene. She poured out impressive volumes of golden sound all night and made one wish her role had not been trimmed. In the punishing title role, German tenor Torsten Kerl provided heldentenor-quality singing, and saved the best for last with a beautifully sung (but stupidly staged) “Allmächt’ger Vater” (“Almighty Father”). Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund coped well with daunting high notes in the thankless role of Irene.

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