WAGNER: Rienzi, der Letzt die Tribun / John Mitchinson, ten (Cola di Rienzi); Lois McDonald, sop (Irene); Lorna Haywood, sop (Adriano Colonna); Michael Langdon, bass (Steffano Colonna); Raimund Herincx, bass-bar (Paolo Orsini); David Ward, bs (Raimondo); Adrian de Peyer, tenor (Baroncelli); Paul Hudson, bs (Cecco del Vecchio); Elizabeth Gale, sop (Messenger of Peace); Brian Cookson, ten (Herald); BBC Northern Singers & Orchestra; Edward Downes, cond / Opera Depot OD-10914-4 (available at https://operadepot.com/products/wagner-rienzi-mitchinson-haywood-mcdonnall-langdon-herincx-ward-downes-london-1976)
“I am of the firm opinion that [Rienzi] is the finest thing achieved in grand opera in the last twelve years, that it is the most significant dramatic creation since Les Huguenots, and that it is just as epoch-making for its own time as were Les Huguenots, Der Freischütz, and Don Giovanni, each for its respective period of musical history.”
Despite its being his first (and biggest) hit opera, and the one that led to his further productions in both Dresden and Paris, Wagner came to loathe Rienzi. Yet despite the fact that he kept cutting music from the score, not only for the 1842 opening night but also making further cuts over the next two years, it was not necessarily the music that became “repugnant” to him. It was, actually, the militaristic tone of the work. We tend to forget that Wagner, an iconoclastic thinker, not only despised the control that members of the royalty had over the arts, but also the militaristic trend of his own country, which is what led him into exile and becoming a wanted man for several years. Yet, ironically, it was exactly this militaristic tone, and the strong manner in which Rienzi fought the patricians as well as the Catholic church of his time, that so attracted young Adolf Hitler and led him to consider Rienzi Wagner’s greatest opera. He kept the only known completed and approved final score of the opera by him night and day, and in fact had it incinerated with him in his bunker in 1945.
This has led to a general distaste for and condemnation of the opera in the 20th and 21st centuries. But should we blame Richard Wagner for this militaristic view when he clearly disliked it so much that he ejected it from his canon of operas? True, he also dismissed his even earlier operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, but these were rejected on musical grounds. With Rienzi, he emerged almost fully-developed as a composer. Almost, but not quite; close listening to the music reveals the strong influence of two earlier composers who he once admired. Vincenzo Bellini and Giacomo Meyerbeer, though he later wrote virulent condemnations of the latter because one of Meyerbeer’s letters to the Paris Opera recommending him got lost in the mail and he accused Meyerbeer of never writing it. Part of Wagner’s motivation for distancing himself from Rienzi was that the Parisians wanted his later operas to sound like it. Tannhäuser was a resounding flop at the Paris Opera, not least because he placed the ballet, set in the Venusburg, at the very beginning of the opera instead of in Act II or III as the French dilettantes preferred.
Yet Rienzi as a musical construction continued to fascinate singers and conductors. Even in the early 20th century, many great singers (among them Louise Kirkby-Lunn, Jacques Urlus and Ernestine Schumann-Heink) were so attracted to arias from the opera that they sang and recorded them, and the overture became a favorite concert piece, even of Italian conductor Guido Cantelli who performed it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This fascination led to abridged performances, one of the most interesting being from 1960 with tenor Set Svanholm in the title role, Christa Ludwig as Adriano and American soprano Teresa Stich-Randall as the Messenger of Peace. But in all these performances, a heavily abridged score was used because the original sources were obscure. It wasn’t until the 1970s that other scores came to light, one autograph by Wagner which included much music cut even before the first performance, and three published scores, the last from 1844, edited by Wagner with further cuts. It seems to me that another reason why Wagner came to hate the opera was because he was forced to keep cutting it, just as poor Hector Berlioz was forced to make cuts in Les Troyens for performance.
A commercial recording finally appeared in 1974, about three hours and 20 minutes of the nearly five-hour opera, with René Kollo as Rienzi, Siv Wenneberg as Irene, American mezzo Janis Martin as Adriano and Theo Adam as Paolo Orsini. It met with astonishing critical acclaim, but until recent years was the only studio version of the opera. Modern recordings are cut just as much if not more.
But in 1976 British conductor Edward Downes convinced the BBC to let him perform and broadcast an uncut performance of the opera, based on the surviving manuscript and scores, trimmed just a bit to match what musicologists then felt was the closest they could come to the way it was performed in 1842. Downes assembled a cast of first-rate British singers. Some, like tenor John Mitchison, baritone Raimund Herincx and basses Michael Langdon and David Ward, were fairly well-known outside of England, but most of the others—and particularly the outstanding sopranos Lois McDonald and Lorna Haywood—were scarcely known at all internationally. This is the performance presented here on this superb release.
The sound is first-class stereo for its time, although a couple of passages in Act I are, for some reason, heard in mono (but good, clear mono). It has had only three issues prior to this that I can trace, all on small or “pirate” CD labels: Audio Encyclopedia AE 003, Oriel Music Society OMS 146/5 (the only one stretched out to five CDs), and Mitridate’s Ponto label, PO 1040, which was the best-circulated and therefore the most commonly available version.
Thus this current version being sold by Opera Depot, an independent label run by Andy Whitfield (http://operadepot.com), is an especially welcome edition for those who want their Wagner on CDs and not just as streaming audio (the performance is also on YouTube). What makes this performance so interesting, in my view, runs counter to what most critics say of Rienzi, that it doesn’t suffer from the cut music, that as usual Wagner over-wrote the opera. But considering how little action takes place, Wagner also over-wrote Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde and Siegfried, and except for Tristan, which almost always has a chunk cut out of the love duet (which is superfluous music; I heard the uncut performance that James Levine conducted at the Metropolitan Opera with Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, and the extra music was a crashing bore), none of the other operas are generally performed with cuts.
What strikes the ear in this remarkable performances, aside from the extraordinarily high quality of all of the singing, down to the smallest role, are two things. Firstly, and perhaps more importantly, is the fact that Downes conducts it like an opera from the Wagner canon, meaning with an alternation of dramatic and lyrical phrasing. This reduces the almost overwhelmingly martial impact that the opera as a whole makes, as opposed to those scenes clearly intended to be dramatic and exciting, which he does not gloss over. But secondly, most of the music new to my ears is some of the most beautiful and moving that Wagner ever wrote. One example among many is the newly extended version of the Irene-Adriano duet in Act I. What is given most of the time, and even in the 1974 recording, as a nice interlude is here revealed as one of the most interesting, well-crafted and moving pieces in the entire opera. The fact that it runs nearly three times as long as what we previously heard is of no importance; sheer length is not always an indicator of musical invention or lack of it, and it is clear that the young Wagner (he was only 29 when Rienzi premiered) was clearly channeling the long lines and continually-developing musical flow of Bellini, for whose opera Norma he once wrote an alternate bass aria.
Nor is this the only moment when one steps back, allows time to stand still, and admires what he poured into this score. Yes, there are some moments—not too many—where you think to yourself that this is going on too long, but for the most part you just keep listening and following the thread of the music because it is so good. What I’m saying, then, is that these snarky critics and musicologists who dump on Rienzi as overwritten trash are dead wrong. Very little of it bores; you just have to consider that this is French Grand Opera written by a German and accept it on its own terms. (For those who care, there’s also a completely uncut performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots running nearly four hours on YouTube, conducted by Cyril Diederich, and most of the “new” music is relatively uninteresting.) In only two places did I feel the music was over-written: 1) the incredibly lengthy Act II ballet, which runs a whopping 38 minutes. Part of this IS banal. I cut five minutes out of the middle that I found unimpressive. 2) the orchestral interlude near the beginning of Act IV, which repeats itself unnecessarily. I trimmed that, too.
Yet even so, you won’t be disappointed with this performance, even though Haywood (Adriano) is a soprano, and thus sounds a bit too similar to McDonald (Irene), instead of the called-for mezzo-soprano in the role. Mitchinson wasn’t much of an interpreter, but his superb phrasing, great diction (in fact, most of the singers here have incredibly clear German pronunciation) and sympathetic treatment of the title role can be deeply affection at times, particularly in his “prayer” which opens the fifth and last act. A bit too long? Sure, but so are Huguenots and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, and frankly, there’s only about 90 minutes of great music in Tell. Highly recommended.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
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