There is no doubt in my mind that Eve Queler loves Wagner’s opera, Rienzi. Watching her receive a well deserved ovation as she ascended the podium on January 29th to lead the forces of the Opera Orchestra of New York, it struck me that this was the conductor’s fourth open case for this Wagnerian rarity, making her an unofficial champion of a piece that even Wagner himself turned his back against after he established his career. Following the performance, one could only be grateful for her insistence.
Rienzi came to Wagner’s life at a time of great financial upheaval and professional incertitude. Having gone to Paris in September of 1839 to join the ranks of the musical elite, his enthusiasm quickly led to disenchantment as he failed to assert himself in the French musical establishment. He found himself reduced to writing unprofitable articles and piano arrangements of Italian operas, and it is quite certain that the eighteen months Wagner spent in Paris cemented the foundation of his subsequent sour worldview. In the meantime, he had begun composition of his third opera, Rienzi, inspired primarily by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes” and fashioned in the grand opera style in the hope of securing a success in the musical capital of the world. When he could not secure its commission there, Wagner, with the aid of Giacomo Meyerbeer, set his eyes to provincial Dresden instead. There the opera premiered on October 20, 1842 with a cast that included Josef Aloys Tichatschek as Rienzi, Henriette Wust as Irene, and the legendary Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient in the travesty role of Adriano.
Despite its original torturous six-hour length (it was later abridged and heavily cut,) the opera was enthusiastically received and it became Wagner’s first professional and financial success, a fact that he would be quick to dismiss as his philosophical proclivities became more pronounced. Indeed, the composer of The Ring and Parsifal was not ready to embrace his early accomplishment, and went as far as negating it as part of his musical legacy. The ardent Wagnerite of today is too happy to echo the master’s sentiment, and amidst their praises for Parsifal and excuses for Dutchman, they too readily baulk at the very mention of Rienzi. The opera’s reputation as undesirable has had its effects, and though it remained very popular throughout the nineteenth century, performances became scarce in the twentieth (the opera’s famous overture surely keeping it alive). Rienzi was dealt a final blow when Hitler expressed a fond affection to the piece (he even had in his possession the original manuscript of the opera, which he kept in his bunker and was subsequently lost as the second world war came to an end). As it stands, modern performances of this beautiful score remain rare, and thus I cannot help but appreciate the persistence of Ms. Queler’s agenda is reviving this unfairly ignored work.
The opera is set in Fourteenth century Rome against a background of patrician rivalries (the Colonnas vs the Orsinis) and political unrest. Cola Rienzi, a papal notary, has sworn to avenge the murder of his brother at the hand of a Colonna. When the curtain opens, an attempt to kidnap Rienzi’s sister Irene by Paolo Orsini and his faction is foiled by the Colonna clan. Adriano Colonna, in love with Irene, defends her from her attackers. As crowd gathers around the disturbance, it comes to a halt with the arrival of Rienzi himself. Backed by the Papal Legate Raimondo and Adriano (whose feelings for Irene are reciprocated,) he urges the people to oppose the excesses of the patricians. Overwhelmed by his rhetoric, the crowd offers Rienzi the crown, but he in turn reverts to lead Rome as Tribune of the Roman people.
Together in their hate for the new leader, the Colonna and Orsini clans join forces and plot the death of Rienzi. During a ceremony arranged for a delegation of foreign ambassadors, Paolo Orsini stabs Rienzi in the chest, but the steel breastplate worn by the Tribune deflects the otherwise mortal blow. The people demand the blood of the traitors, and the Orsinis and Colonnas are condemned to death. Yet Rienzi, persuaded by Adriano and Irene’s pleas for the life of Adriano’s father, Steffano Colonna pardons the nobles.
The opera’s third act opens in the Roman forum. The nobles have resumed their plotting against Rienzi, and Rome is in a general state of unrest. Adriano struggles to resolve his loyalties, but makes up his mind when Rienzi and his forces return with the lifeless bodies of the offending patricians, among them his father Steffano. Adriano curses Rienzi.
Rienzi’s political fortunes turn sour in act four. A delegation of citizens has gathered at the Lateran Church to discuss allegations that Rienzi pursued a secret alliance with the nobles, and even offered his sister Irene as a bargaining chip. When the crowd demands evidence of this charge, Adriano steps forward and confirms it. The people turn from Rienzi, and the Tribune is excommunicated. Adriano implores Irene to come with him, but she remains by her brother’s side.
The final act takes place in the Capitol. Rienzi is alone and prays to God for strength. He is joined by Irene, who insists on staying by Rienzi despite his pleas that she should be with Adriano in these unstable times. Rienzi attempts to appease the growing gathering outside the Capitol to no avail: they set the building ablaze. Adriano rushes into the Capitol, and begs Irene to escape. He even tries to remove her by force, but he too is unsuccessful. The curtain falls as the building collapses in the inferno.
As performed on the afternoon of January 29, the opera was served well by Ms. Queler. If at times one could complain that her tempo veered towards the slack, these concerns were quickly overlooked as she successfully realized the difficulties presented by Wagner. Rienzi’s scale is massive, and she held together the Opera Orchestra of New York, coupled with the New York Choral Society and the Vox Nova of the Special Music School (not to mention the various soloists) as they navigated through this complicated score. Some innovations, like placing the brass in the upper balconies made for good stereo effect but threatened to get out of her control. A more succesful attempt at this took place during the opening scene of act two, when a chorus of children walked from the back of the auditorium towards the stage singing their unaccompanied section “Ihr Römer, hört die Kunde”, the effect being that of a distant wall of sound steadily approaching, arriving, and slowly vanishing away. Overall, a more than satifying reading of this exciting opera which she routinely champions. With that being said, not everything about the presentation registered as ideal.
Taking on the challenge of the title character, British tenor Ian Storey was the afternoon’s biggest casualty. A tall, silver fox type, he is sure to cut a striking figure if he ever performed this role in a staged production. His general vocalism was less appealing. He is the possessor of a dry voice, which nonetheless satisfies the basic sonic needs demanded by the role. He was heard best at the top of the ensemble, with the surrounding cacophony masking his tenor’s tonal deficiencies while showcasing the achievement of his science. Still, and moreso with Rienzi, Wagner requires a “velvet fist”, and calls for several moments of great beauty and nobility which were mostly supplied by the orchestra whenever the proceedings required Mr. Storey’s involvement. Rienzi’s initial address to the people of Rome, and the subsequent ensemble that follows (“Doch höret ihr der Trompete Ruf”,) was telling of how the remainder of the performance would go. The strained, tremulous quality of Mr. Storey’s declamation did not satisfy in the melodic statement, but only convinced as it ascended the staff and voiced over the contributions of the orchestra, colleagues and chorus combined. This attribute surely excuses his involvement in the arduous roles that make up his repertoire (He lists Tristan, Otello Tannhauser and Florestan amongst them), and earned him a passing grade as he managed the rigours of the opening two acts.
However, this is a long opera, and there was much suffering to be had whenever the score called for suavity and a well-supported line. He veritably came to grief during his famous prayer in the opera’s final act, “Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab!” which forced the Mr. Storey to navigate through too many weak spots in his instrument. A long section, it became a case of death by aria which both the audience and the singer were relieved to see pass by. He was in improved form during his collaboration with Ms. Matos in the complicated duet that followed, and this, combined with his final statements to the Roman people did much to salvage his contribution. His was a serviceable performance of this difficult role, and if his deficiencies were at times difficult to overlook, his supporting cast did much to make up for them.
Better was the Irene of Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos, who started the proceedings in sumptuous (if sometimes unfocused) voice. She harks back to a time when artists focused great emphasis on the quality of the sound produced rather than in the mechanisms that make the thing happen (the opposite of her leading tenor). And so while her production was at times erratic, her sound was plush, exotic, and at consistently luxurious. She was at her best when the technique matched her talent, such as in the act one trio between Irene, Rienzi and Adriano (Noch schlägt in seiner Brust), and the subsequent duet with Adriano. In both her voice took a clear and gleaming focus at the top of its range, and was well heard over the other voices. Her unique tone was appreciated in the closing pages of act two “Wie Sonne schön durch Wolken bricht” where Irene is required to cap the ensemble with the higher tones Wagner would request of his sopranos. Had the evening ended here, she would have surely walked away with the prize assessment, but following the intermission she returned in different vocal state.
The clarion production was still heard during the finale of act three, but an occasional tightening was beginning to creep in, likely an issue of stamina, which ultimately got the better of her in the opera’s final act. Here, Wagner has reserved a testing duet for the siblings,“Ich liebte glühend meine hohe Braut,” and the rising tessitura and complicated requests noticeably derailed her. The final confrontation with Adriano was affected by a constricted tone, which she managed to shake off just in time to issue her final, Senta-like statement before she closed her score. On a lighter note, she is not shy to wear a frock, (two, actually) and her attire was the subject of much discussion between several ladies (and some of the gentlemen) during intermission. Her first ensemble was a sweeping tunic with a multicolor print that divided the fashionistas (I thought it was EVERYTHING). For the second half of the opera, she wore a shapely black wrap dress with an orange (or is it red?) collar, which I, as a former goth, appreciated. She looked the part of a Grande Dame and mostly sounded like one.
Making her American debut with this performance, French mezzo-soprano Geraldine Chauvet scored a triumph in the trouser role of Adriano Colonna. Hers is a voice of remarkable clarity and well-knit texture, which remains intact throughout her scale and also as she escalates the dynamics to the fortissimo. This peppered her vocalism excitingly tense and at times electric, and paid off handsomely during her delivery of her big act three aria. The excerpt is a rare example of Wagner’s take on the compound aria (it even contains a cabaletta), and it was written in the style of Bellini, whose Romeo Wagner greatly admired. Ms. Chauvet excelled in her delivery of the introductory recitative (Gerechter Gott, so ist’s entschieden schon!), and delivered a sturdy rendition of the famous aria “In seiner Blüte bleicht mein Leben”. Here, her sense of phrasing betrayed a singer more at home with the Straussian style, her Adriano leaning more towards an Octavian than a Norma. This limited her interpretation significantly, because though she managed the florid graces well enough, they were executed as a removed requirement rather than as an integral part of the lament.
She faired better during the exchanges with Ms. Matos, the first of which took place during the first act. In “Ja, eine Welt voll Leiden”, Wagner follows the established bel canto tradition of placing two female voices in close proximity, a device that he would later employ in the exquisite exchange between Elsa and Ortrud in Lohengrin. Here, Ms. Chauvet’s voice melted well with Ms. Matos’, despite the marked differences in timbre and manner of production. For the final exchange between the women, Ms. Chauvet was at her most emotionally effective in the segment “Ha, meine Liebe, ja, ich fühl’ es”, where she poured her voice out in an emotional manner without yet never losing sight of her method. The thunderous ovation that greeted her at curtain call confirmed that an exciting debut had taken place, and your friends at Newoutpost.com look forward to assess how this young artist develops in future assignments.
The smaller parts were assigned to a bevy of sturdy voices, of which Jonathan Winell (Baroncelli), Ricardo Rivera (Paolo Orsini), Philip Horst (Stefano Colonna), and Emily Duncan-Brown (The Messenger of Peace) stood out. OONY’s performance, despite some uneven elements, furthered the case against Rienzi’s neglected status in today’s repertoire, and reminded us that it is a work worthy of attention not only as a subject of study in Wagner’s development but for its own musical merits. The company next turns to Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra which will be performed on March 7th, and will feature tenor Placido Domingo in the title role. Those interested in the august tenor’s ongoing experiment into the dramatic baritone repertoire would do well to visit the company’s website at www.operaorchestrany.org