Connecting With Rienzi

ItalyItaly Wagner, Rienzi: Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera Rome, (Chorus master, Roberto Gabbiani), Conductor: Stefan Soltesz. Rome, 14.5.2013. (JB)

Sets, Costumes and Staging, Hugo de Ana

Cola Rienzi: Andreas Schager
Irene, his sister: Manuela Uhl
Adriano Colonna: Angela Denoke

As a young man, Wagner seems to have been politically naïve, confused and convinced. What is interesting is that all three vices matured to produce what is unquestionably some of the greatest operatic masterpieces in the business. Is there anywhere in Western cultural history such a striking instance of wrong-headedness being the parent of such creativity? (I say Western advisedly; my Taoist orientated friends would just smile knowingly.) And there the trinity of vices are, flashing their beacon in Rienzi, when Richard Wagner was only in his mid twenties.

Wagner thought big right from the start. Rienzi, which is in five acts, has a running time of five hours, before you add in whatever is required in intervals. Cuts are inevitable. The Rome Opera got it down to three hours, twenty minutes including two twenty-five minute intervals. A leading orchestra player told me that my guesstimate of 50% cuts was near the mark. So the theatre had been generous in their use of the waste paper basket.

But it turned out they were not generous enough. And worse, they hadn’t made the right cuts. I last saw Rienzi in this same theatre in 1969 – forty-four years ago. I recall a ballet scene with some unoriginal, yet very effective music (the only time aside from Tannhäuser when Wagner wrote ballet music). That was cut for the present performance. Almost all of Irene’s music was cut. But that turned out to be a merciful release for her as well as us, as I shall explain in a minute. The best that can be said about Andreas Schager in the title role is that he looked great when he unbuttoned his shirt to be burned to death in the final scene. Are they casting tenors with the same criteria they use for Olympic swimmers these days?

Truth is that Mr Schager was magnificent in the many tableaux vivant which were the prominent feature of the staging of Hugo de Ana (stage director, sets and costumes). See photo. Had Mr de Ana taken over the duties of casting director? That is how it looked and sounded. The composer’s contribution to the evening had somewhat been assigned to the back burner. You may be sure that any de Ana staging will be as traditional as teatime at the London Ritz Hotel. Nothing wrong with that either. The projections of sculptures and Latin texts underlined an apt respect for history. All rightly dignified. I was unable myself to pick up the references to Mussolini and Hitler, which in an interview printed in the programme, Mr de Ana tells us was part of his inspiration.

Stefan Soltesz was an ideal conductor, ever mindful of Wagner’s engagement with naivety and conviction. His tempi were ideal in every scene and especially in the lengthy overture. He also perfectly judged every dynamic level and was careful never to cover the very small voices of the three leading singers.

Pier Miranda Ferraro had sung Rienzi in the 1969 staging. That tenor was best known for his performances of Verdi’s Otello. In a word, this was a tenor with muscle in his voice. Mr Schager’s excellent muscles are in his chest, as I’ve said. There were moments (and many of them) when his voice could be scarcely heard, even with the conductor’s considerate accompaniments. If we could have had the visuals without the aurals, the hint might have worked.

The two women fared no better, Manuela Uhl as Irene and Angela Denoke as Adriano. Ms Denoke opened up on her big third act aria and even got a meagre round of applause for it –one of the rare audience positive responses of the evening. They all three had a tendency to snatch at notes rather than singing them. And they were seriously underpowered, calling forth a comment from a colleague in the Italian music press at the second interval: What we have here is not three voices, but three dogs.

The chorus, as the Populace of Rome, can easily become the protagonist in Rienzi and given the weaknesses of the three principals, this is what happened here. Roberto Gabbiani had prepared them magnificently and they too benefitted from de Ana’s tableaux. See photo. They are required to sing with haunting mysticism (some of the off-stage singing was particularly effective) as well as stirring, unflinching patriotism. Both were among the most moving moments of the show. Wagner would have liked that.

Jack Buckley