Richard Wagner - Rienzi
Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse, 2012
Pinchas Steinberg, Jorge Lavelli, Torsten Kerl, Marika Schönberg, Richard Wiegold, Daniela Sindram, Stefan Heidemann, Robert Bork, Marc Heller, Leonardo Neiva, Jennifer O'Loughlin
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Amidst the abundance of Ring cycles being wheeled out this year, the Wagner bicentenary has also provided a good opportunity to revisit and reconsider many of the composer's earliest works. This has resulted in a well-received production of Die Feen at Leipzig and a fine new recording in Frankfurt of Das Liebesverbot for CD, confirming that there is much merit in these works even if there is little of the familiar Wagner in them. The same could be said of the Meyerbeer-influenced five-act Grand Opéra style that Wagner employs in Rienzi, but composed around the same time as Der Fliegende Höllander, there are fascinating hints of the style that would develop in the composer's later music dramas. This is something that is brought out very skillfully in this 2012 production from the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse.
In contrast to Philipp Stöltzl's production of Rienzi for the Deutsche Oper (the only other production released on DVD and Blu-ray) which went for bombast and grandeur to match the parallels drawn between the rule of Cola di Rienzi (1313-1354) and more recent historical dictatorships (most evidently Hitler and the Third Reich), the Toulouse production here sets out a more melancholic and mournful tone in Pinchas Steinberg's conducting of the work's famous Overture. There's also a sense of plaintiveness and maybe even defiant resistance, but that could be suggested more by the imagery that is projected here, showing images of the fall of the Berlin Wall as well as other popular uprisings in Paris, in China, in South Africa and right up to date with the Arab Spring.
There are however no other such modern references to be found in this production, which settles thereafter for a more generalised non-specific period, but one that has echoes to Wagner's own time. The Overture is all about setting the tone, and this one succeeds in bringing it back closer to the sentiments and intentions of the original work. As fascinating as Philipp Stöltzl's production was in relating the work to its historical legacy (most notoriously as Hitler's favourite opera), this production takes it back to Wagner's left-wing leanings and the revolutionary activities on the streets of Dresden that would see him forced into exile for a significant part of his life. This is a Rienzi that is still concerned about the nature and the exercise of power, but Wagner's position as a revolutionary on the side of the ordinary citizen - most evident in its huge choruses - is more clearly drawn here.
As the Deutsche Oper production demonstrated, any production of Rienzi is going to be defined by the decisions on what cuts are made to it, since the full five-act work would be almost impossible to perform (and I'm not even sure a definitive version of the work exists). The first thing to go is usually the superfluous Grand Opéra ballet sequences, but otherwise, the Toulouse production is a more intact or integral version than Stöltzl's. If the musical treatment and the theatrical intent are quite different, this production is nonetheless still very much stylised in its own way. Closer to the 19th century than medieval Rome (or indeed the Third Reich), the panstick-whitened faces remind one of a futuristic silent movie like Metropolis. In its striving for an ideal society that rules with benevolence and with balance for the needs of its people, this might not be far off the mark in striking the right tone for Rienzi.
There is however nothing as visually striking as Metropolis in this minimally decorated production. The Toulouse stage is not a large one and considerable space is needed for the massed choruses that take to the stage regularly throughout each of the five acts. That's not to say that the production doesn't hold attention however. The costumes are appropriate to help define the characters and succeeding in setting the people apart from the uniformly-dressed political factions (you can scarcely distinguish between the Orsini and the Colonna, which is perhaps the intention). The lighting is superb, and the production works well enough to bring across what can be a fairly static opera largely comprised of pronouncements and declarations.
The singing too commands attention. The vocal writing is less bel canto in Rienzi than in Wagner's previous work, the Bellini-influenced Das Liebesverbot, but the roles are no less demanding on the singers, pointing towards the style of expression and continual flow that is found in later Wagner works. All of the singers deal with the demands exceptionally well, if not always with a great sense of personality, but then the characterisation is somewhat limited in this work. Torsten Kerl has made the role of Cola di Rienzi something of his own and he brings out a more human side to the character here. Marika Schönberg is a good Irene, but doesn't make as much of an impression in the role as Camilla Nyberg did in the Deutsche Oper production. In the trouser role of Adriano, mezzo-soprano Daniela Sindram however probably gives the stand-out performance, with a deep, soaring and expressive delivery that helps considerably in bringing some much needed life to the work.
It's this kind of performance that demonstrates that there are many facets in Rienzi that are still worth exploring. Rienzi is an opera that you want to be rediscovered as a misunderstood and neglected masterpiece, but it just never seems to live up to what we expect of a Wagner opera. The promise of the wonderful overture asserts itself on occasion like a leitmotif throughout the work, but it never seems to deliver on its promise. Rienzi may yet be capable of being revitalised into something greater, but despite the best efforts of production here, this one still doesn't quite overcome the problems inherent within the work.
As you would expect, the High Definition presentation of Rienzi on Blu-ray from Opus Arte is most impressive. The image is clear and captures the production well. The audio PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks are fine, but there's some reverb in the stage ambience that dulls the sound a little. Without the LFE on the PCM track the singing is somewhat clearer, but the surround track has its benefits in a better distribution of the orchestra. The BD also has almost an hour's worth of interviews with the production team and the singers. Torsten Kerl deals quite frankly with the thorny issues of Wagner's controversial statements and the work's legacy in the Nazi era, but there are also interesting thoughts on the value of the work itself and the difficulties of performing it from the conductor and director.
The BD is full-HD, dual-layer BD50, region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.