Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Brilliant production of Rienzi in Berlin

What a way to begin 2010! First there was The Fairy Queen which instantly blew me away. Then  K und K (for Koch & Kaufmann) slammed us with unbelievably emotional Werther. Plus I liked the witty way Mussbach brought to life Norma, and finally my dream to see a well-done staged version of Rienzi came true...

As I said it before, this was my first Rienzi ever and I loved it.

Conductor  Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Director Philipp Stölzl
Choir Conductor William Spaulding

Rienzi Torsten Kerl
Irene Camilla Nylund
Steffano Colonna  Ante Jerkunica
Adriano  Kate Aldrich
Paolo Orsini Krzysztof Szumanski
Cardinal Orvieto  Lenus Carlson
Baroncelli  Clemens Bieber
Cecco del Vecchio  Stephen Bronk 

I will not go through the story of Rienzi  which you can read elsewhere on Internet (including the true story about Cola di Rienzo). In fact before this trip to Berlin I never really read even the synopsis of this opera carefully. I knew it was the Grand French Opera format, so I thought it was either messy or too far-fetched to bother before getting a chance to actually see it. Now I know I was wrong!  So my dear reader, be patient and read carefully a short --albeit passionate-- story of Rienzi (c.f. either Wiki or NPR site, or in French on Planete Wagner).

Although never performed in Bayreuth, this opera used to be performed elsewhere, but since it was the Hitler's favorite it almost disappeared from the repertoire after WW2. That of course is not the only reason why this opera wasn't staged more often, but it is an important one. The other reason is quite obviously the length of the original score: 5 hours with no intermission; something you clearly cannot afford/produce today. The uncomfortable cuts are therefore necessary and any production nowadays is reduced by about 40-50% with respect to the original score. As a result the dramatic action is extremely dynamical, but it is a hell for singers: the best and the hardest singing parts are never left out and the roles become more dense and extremely difficult to sing. Adriano, for example, ends up singing a long and tough aria, followed by a hellish cabaletta with Irene, and only about 2 minutes of rest between the two! So the more plausible reason why this opera is hard to program is the cast: a dramatic mezzo cannot sing Adriano, and the belcanto singers cannot do it either. This is why my world of admiration goes to Kate Aldrich.

The libretto contains all the elements to produce a splendid opera: the passionate story, very easy to identify with the history of 20th century (this opera almost predicted the course of the 20th century)... and with not too much stretch of imagination you can identify Rienzi with the dictators in some parts of the world today.

Even though it structurally satisfies the codes of a Grand French Opera, it possesses many virtues and a vocal exuberance of the Italian 19th century opera. Deep down, however, this opera is notoriously German, and it is almost a sneak-peak at the Wagner's later musical/dramatic genius. Hans von Bülow apparently called Rienzi "the best Mayerbeer opera" ;), but that was after Richard had disclaimed Rienzi.  I am not going to open a can of worms and speculate on why Richard disclaimed Rienzi, but I must say that I tend to believe it was his impulsive reaction to the way he's been mistreated by the French, rather than a genuine resentment of his own work.

Now, what did Philipp Stölzl do with/to Rienzi?

He does not leave any basic ambiguity about Rienzi.  This libretto does allow you to play around and make Rienzi emerging as a continuation of the unstable environment from which he naturally rises as a Tribune. You can also paint him positively after his refusal to take the Crown, his desire to be a Tribune of the Roman people... He can also be viewed as a bit dreamy and/or naive. You could slightly twist the argument and make him look like a victim of all the plots and the vicious fight for power among the nobles and the Church. [OK, you could also build the case against the Church but that's an easy one.;)] There're many ways you can see Rienzi, highlight his virtues and vices, his human and monstrous sides... These more humanizing views on Rienzi are certainly closer to Hitler's interpretation (this was his favorite Wagner) but that does not make them less viable.  It is just tricky to handle them and at the same time avoid to get dragged to low-base politics, historical revisionism and so on. All I want to say is that the libretto is rich and relatively easy to model.

So Stölzl takes the gloves off and offers us his Rienzi -- a sick populist bastard whose only reason to live is to stay in power. To me that seems the only natural way to portray Rienzi after we barely said goodbye to the 20th century.

Rienzi's way to rise to power and stay there involves the abundant use of propaganda. I already said that the demeanor of his Rienzi makes you think of Mussolini (you cannot miss that!), and yet on the populist gatherings the guy standing beside him looks like Göring which then brings back Hitler into the mix of associations. Stölzl does that deliberately; he does not want Rienzi to be neither Hitler nor Mussolini, nor Stalin... These references are only a vector to help us instantly identify the dictator as such, and then monitor his propaganda tools [media and propaganda are present in this production from the get-go]. Philipp is tackling the universal features of all the modern dictators, and our frightening capacity/idiocy to embrace/glorify them which inevitably leads us to tragedy. To me Philipp's staging looks like this:

The opera begins with a BEAUTIFULLY conducted  prelude by Sebastian Lang-Lessing, while  on the stage Philipp gives a touchy homage to Charlie Chaplin's  "The Great Dictator". Here is your first hint that the show is going to be about Hitler - but it's not!

The fight among patricians ends in a general disarray among people. Here you find Stölzl's recognizable view on the populace (plebs): They are dressed in everyday clothes, carry the masks (hypocrites) and fight against one another. Rienzi puts a halt to the fights and riots, and the crowd wants him to lead and bring peace to Rome. He of course loves it and after his populist triumph the reaction of that same people was to submit themselves to the bigger/common cause. They take off their masks, dress in uniforms, attach  an "R"-tag everywhere, and adopt the salute - right fist up:

Uniform fits you "better", makes you feel less insecure...

I didn't take any other pics during the first part (two acts before the intermission), but you can see more of them on the DOB website and in this short promotional video.

Irene is fascinated by her brother (Rienzi) and is deeply in love with him. After one of his populist triumphant speeches he kisses her on the mouth, which comes from Wagner and not Stölzl, i.e.  the incestuous innuendo of their relationship (which Wagner will explore much more in the Ring). Her love for Adriano is more based on gratitude and sympathy, and at the same time provides her brother a useful support from the Colonnas; plus it exonerates her love for Rienzi from moral judgments. Camilla Nylund is a good soprano and this role suits her very well.  Her looks fit excellently her role in this production.

Adriano is a young romantic, desperately in love with Irene; torn between his love for Irene, his support for Rienzi, and the fidelity to his own family. Kate Aldrich manages to find a good measure not to overdo any of these emotions.

The scene in which Rienzi is killing his opponents (including Adriano's father) was the most poignant/dramatic part of the whole show to me: Rienzi first publicly --in front of the cameras-- pardons each of the conspirators who failed to assassinate him,  and then each and every one of them is executed by a single gunshot to the head, each time by another uniformed Rienzi's follower (it's their "patriotic" duty?!) . This lasts for almost 5 minutes and it's horrifying.

In the second part of the show the stage is horizontally divided in two. While in the upper part live the people, exposed to all the misery and torment inflicted on them, Rienzi and his headquarters are in the lower part - a bunker.

Red is for War - the people fight for Rienzi and suffer the bombings

From there Rienzi "encourages" his people with propaganda messages: he's filmed with the small models of the Roman architecture, to give impression that he's out there, fighting with them.  His rage grows bigger as the power slips away and the signs of madness start to show up (some top notch acting from Torsten Kerl in this part!).

The battles are over, and the people of Rome suffered great casualties.

Blue is for the end of War - burying the victims

Adriano comes to rescue his Irene. He understands the propaganda tools and smashes the plaster models, but Irene wouldn't go with him. She slaps him in the face showing once again that she's in love with her brother and not with him.  The mob of the revenge thirsty Romans goes after everyone associated with Rienzi. Rienzi comes out from the bunker, encounters the mob, fails to win them over  and gets butchered. The mob then enters the bunker and kills everyone in there, including Irene and Adriano - Adriano who never gave up hope that Irene would be his...

I already blogged about the singers. They were all truly wonderful, including the members of the DOB ensemble. The crowd's favorite was clearly Kate Aldrich. That was some heroic singing and wonderful acting from her. She was dramatic in her moments of despair, but also a romantic belcanto singer with brilliant legato when it was needed. The power or volume of her singing was never a problem. One of the rare moments when the only word that comes to mind is  RESPECT!
I must also emphasize my world of respect for Torsten Kerl. What a singer! What an actor! He is NOT a natural heldentenor but he gave everything he's got to make this Rienzi super-credible vocally as well as scenically. And it really takes a valiant effort to sing through this role. With all that being said, I still think the idea to sing Siegfried next year in Paris is a mistake, but I leave that topic for some other occasion...

OK here are the curtain-call pics.

LOVE Kate Aldrich 

Torsten Rienzi and his sister Irene Nylund ;) 

Aldrich, Lang-Lessing, Kerl, Nylund

The BEST chorus in the World today 


  1. Will it be realised on DVD?

  2. I don't know but even if there are some plans it will take a couple of years.

    There are 2 more shows now and then 2 more in April. If you can go and see it live, it's really worth the trip.

  3. I've just returned from the latest performance of this amazing, but slightly shocking, production. It was being filmed for DVD release, so fear not!

  4. Many thanks for that info. Now I hope it won't take them 2 years of editing.

    Tell us about the "shocking" bit! ;)

  5. what is with other singers,where they good too,or......?

  6. Hi there! I said they (the members if the DOB ensemble) were all fantastic. The young Szumanski and Jerkunica are two superb singers to come [provided they stop singing *everything*]. In this production of Rienzi they were as good as their more experienced starry colleagues, so...

  7. It will be released within a week: check

  8. DVD is out and is brilliant ...