Rienzi, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Wagner Wochen, February 2010Posted on 11 February 2010
Rienzi gets a mention in the libretto of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, because Boccanegra, as Doge of Venice, had a similar plebeian background to Rienzi in Rome. Both lived in the fourteenth century and were raised to the highest office, despite opposition and resentment from the patricians. There are other comparisons such as Boccanegra’s long lost daughter, and Rienzi’s sister Irene, both adored by young patricians. In Rienzi, this young man is named Adriano, and when the patricians revolt against Rienzi’s government, Adriano’s father Stefano is killed, and Adriano vows to take revenge by killing Rienzi. His attempt fails, but he still adores Irene, and when the crowd turns ugly he decides to save her and her brother, but all three are killed. This is an obvious difference from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, where the great man appoints the young patrician as his successor, but in this production of Rienzi by Philipp Stölzl we can only wish for the death of the great leader with no successor.
Rienzi is portrayed as a twentieth century populist dictator, who is an almost clown-like megalomaniac. During the overture he is seated in a vast office overlooking the city, and gradually starts to move to the music, first with a hand and arm, later doing somersaults and cartwheels. The acrobat taking this role is immensely fat and the result is almost grotesque. Suddenly he jumps on the table imagining he is steering the whole office into the sky and beyond, as the view of the city gradually changes to a perspective from outer space.
Back to earth in the first part of the opera, the Roman people are shown like clowns and cabaret performers, as in Berlin of the 1920s. As Rienzi rises to power, the clown-like women change into black dresses with white aprons, the men into black Nazi-style uniforms, and there appears a backdrop of black flags with a white symbol having sharp corners. Could this be Hitler and Germany? Or do the later white uniforms with broad military caps suggest a South American dictatorship? Certainly Rienzi is in a white uniform, while Irene looks like a cross between Eva Peron and Yulia Timoschenko, and at the interval the production attracted plenty of booing.
In the second part, however, it all came together. The amateurish rise to power of the clown-like Rienzi is over. Here he is shown in his bunker on the ground level of the stage, with the people on the street level above. The staging by Stölzl and Mara Kurotschka, with freezes and occasional dramatic movements in slow motion was very powerful, and the sets by Stölzl and Ulrike Siegrist, along with excellent lighting, helped give the impression of organised chaos. There continued to be a Monty-Python flavour to events, with Rienzi performing for the cameras, orating to a bank of microphones in his Hitler moustache. The comparisons were unmistakable, particularly in the bunker when he played around with scaled-down models of some Berlin monuments, including the Reichstag and the Siegesäule. On the screen behind, which frequently showed Rienzi in populist and orator mode, we even saw Luftwaffe planes from the Second World War flying in a formation representing Rienzi’s symbol from the flag. That and the Wehrmacht helmets leave us in no doubt. The opera closes with Wagner’s original version where Rienzi condemns the people as being degenerate. Only the great man himself is a hero, dragged from his bunker and beaten to death, while Irene was beaten to death underground. Wishful thinking, but the effect on the audience was terrific. Huge applause and none of the booing that greeted the end of the first part.
In a recent interview, Stölzl was asked about his work, which has included being a theatre director as well as working in cinema films and music videos. He said that as an opera director he wasn’t much interested in seeing very traditional productions, but “. . . als Zuschauer ist mir eine Aufführung ohne Interpretation lieber als eine Interpretation, die ich nicht verstehen oder nicht nachvollziehen kann.” (as a spectator I prefer a production without interpretation to an interpretation that I cannot understand or completely follow). I couldn’t agree more, and though I began to doubt his faithfulness to this comment during the first part of this production, the second part fully made up for it.
As to the performers, Rienzi was very well sung and acted by Torsten Kerl — it’s a heavy role, and he carried it off with great power. Camilla Nylund was a statuesque Irene with strong voice and stage presence, and Kate Aldrich sang Adriano most beautifully, showing him to be an indecisive young man yearning for Irene’s strength and approval. The orchestra played well under the direction of Sebastian Lang-Lessing, and the chorus of nearly fifty men and fifty women were involved the whole time and sang with huge effect.
As a final word on Philipp Stölzl’s interpretation it is worth noting two facts. One is that Wagner rejected Rienzi well before the end of his life, yet it continued to attract large audiences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The other is that Hitler had the original score of this opera in his possession, and it is now lost, presumably having gone up in flames in the bunker.
This was one of those rare occasions when Regietheater really worked. Well done, Stölzl! The concept was daring but did no violence to the music or the plot.
The reaction from the audience was volatile. Because of the Nazi overtones of the production it must have been quite difficult for Berliners to witness. After the overture there was a cry of ‘Sieg Heil’ from someone in the audience. As the curtain came down for the interval there was a little booing. But at the final curtain everyone had been won over and the cheers raised the roof.
The chorus at the Deutsche Oper is truly remarkable. They sang on six consecutive nights in five of Wagner’s and opera’s most chorally intensive works. There was no sign of tiredness and they always act their socks off. Outstanding!
The orchestra has an equal amount of stamina and in five consecutive Wagner performances I never heard a fluffed note from the brass.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Deutsche Oper for it’s visionary planning – where else in the world can you hear five Wagner operas on five consecutive evenings?
I have to say however well this opera was staged and sung it was still an absolute travesty of the work. Rienzi is a flawed but tragic character. His actions leading to his taking power are a reaction to his family’s treatment at the hands of arrogant patricians. He attempts to rule wisely and fairly but is undermined by the machinations of the patricians, the church and, finally, those he thought his friends. The fact that Hitler liked this opera is totally irrelevant. As far as I am concerned he completely misunderstood it – as he did most of Wagner, Bruckner, Beethoven, etc. Why should Hitler’s views on great art be thought of as important or true. I’m not against modern reinterpreations of the classics – the Nicholas Hytner production of Rienzi I saw at the ENO in the 1980s was one of my greatest operatic experiences.
Finally, do seek out the absolutely complete recording of Rienzi conducted by Sir Edward Downes which the BBC broadcast in 1976 – it even includes music omitted before the 1st performance. It is available on excellent transfers from Oriel Music Trust. It is a revelation.