Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin
February 2010
Deutsche Oper Berlin
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cola RienziTorsten Kerl
IreneCamilla Nylund
Steffano ColonnaAnte Jerkunica
AdrianoKate Aldrich
Paolo OrsiniKrzysztof Szumanski
RaimondoLenus Carlson
BaroncelliClemens Bieber
Cecco del VecchioStephen Bronk
Stage directorPhilipp Stölzl
Set designerPhilipp Stölzl, Ulrike Siegrist
TV directorJohannes Gerbert

The conventional wisdom on Wagner’s Rienzi is that it is unperformable. It is famously long and unwieldy – it’s Wagner’s longest work, and for him that is saying a lot! The composer himself eschewed it in his later years as being unworthy of being performed at the shrine of Bayreuth. None of this, however, stopped the Deutsche Oper from mounting their own production early in 2010 and it has already become somewhat legendary. Now you can make up your own mind about it with this DVD.

The production has two main merits. Firstly it is a new performing edition created by director Philip Stölzl and his assistant Christian Baier and they have slashed the score down to a running time of just over 2½ hours. This gets rid of much of the most ponderous material and makes it palatable for a single evening. Wagner himself, by the way, always recognised that its length was a problem and in the 1840s had originally floated the idea of performing it over two nights, an idea that was justifiably unpopular with the Dresden audiences as it would effectively have had them paying twice for the same opera.

Its second great merit is the interpretation of the production and it is for this that the DVD really deserves to be noticed. Gone is the original setting of 14th Century Rome with its power politics and factional rivalry – though, for reasons of integrity, the name of Rome is maintained in the libretto. Instead we are placed firmly in 1930s Berlin and given a savage dramatic analysis of the power of the dictator to entrance a population. From the very start we see Rienzi sitting in his private study, gazing out over a view that would put many in mind of Hitler’s Berghof. The backdrop of Act 1 is reminiscent of a painting by George Grosz and, as Rienzi takes power, we see film footage and, later, models of Berlin’s Reichstag, Siegessäule and Albert Speer’s monstrous Germania building. For most of the performance the backdrop consists of a huge cinema screen with propaganda images being projected onto it, be they images of Rienzi’s speeches, his visions for Das Neue Rom, or wartime production lines. The footage has been carefully modelled on Leni Riefenstahl’s films for Hitler, most notable The Triumph of the Will, something the video directors admit they based their work on. Rienzi is swept to power on a wave of popular approval then begins to remake Rome in his own image. He sends his people on a meaningless war and then spends the whole of the second part (the original Acts 3 – 5) in his bunker beneath the streets before, in the final sequence, he is dragged out and lynched.

Not everyone will like this interpretation, and there were predictable boos from the audience when the production was premiered, but to my mind it works tremendously well. Rienzi himself bears some striking parallels with Hitler – helped, no doubt, by selective editing in preparing the performing edition – and it does not feel as though the production has been squeezed into a straitjacket: instead it is a genuinely sensitive and useful updating, something that reminds us that opera in general and this work in particular still have something to say to us today. The fact that the location of the show was only just down the road from the original Führerbunker must have made it pretty close to the bone for the Berlin audiences and I still found it powerful to watch from the armchair.

The performances themselves are uniformly strong. Torsten Kerl, who was Tristan in Glyndebourne’s most recent production, sings like an old-fashioned Heldentenor with a magnificent ring to his voice. True, he sounds a little pinched as the evening wears on, but the voice never loses its sheen and the prayer in Act 5 still sounds convincing, despite the evident strain he is under. His sister (and lover?), Irene, is played magnificently by Camilla Nylund. Her appearance is so Aryan as to make the parallel with Eva Braun obvious, but her voice is heroic and steely and has the power to make the scalp prickle in her various declamatory scenes. American mezzo Kate Aldrich sings the breeches role of Adriano, Irene’s lover and the son of one of Rienzi’s aristocratic rivals. She, too, is magnificent with a lovely sheen to the top of her voice and a rich centre that captures Adriano’s torn loyalties most convincingly. The other roles are all taken well, especially Bieber and Bronk as Rienzi’s disloyal henchmen.

Dramatically speaking, therefore, the work is very convincing; but what of its music? I’m afraid the conventional wisdom is broadly correct on this one. Even in its abbreviated form Rienzi feels long and its many triumphal marches and patriotic choruses can wear a little thin at times. Furthermore the orchestral colour lacks almost any of Wagner’s later inventiveness: big and bold seem to be the two keynotes, and the sung moments are too much in the stand-and-deliver style. None of this stops the performers from giving it their all, though, and the Deutsche Oper Orchestra do a great job at playing and shaping it seriously. I think, however, that this opera is one to watch as well as to see, particularly in this version. For the sheer involvement factor of having the visuals as well as the excellent singing this automatically replaces the only other complete version of the opera that is easily available, that on EMI with Hollreiser and the Staatskapelle Dresden, though the EMI is more complete. If you really want to explore Wagner’s first success then you shouldn’t hesitate in acquiring this DVD.

Simon Thompson


Rienzi is one of the most controversial operas that any theatre can offer, in a sense. To the discussion concerning its musical quality and Wagner’s own rejection of it, has to be added the obvious parallelism between the figure of Cola de Rienzo and the fascist dictatorships of the twentieth century, particularly Hitler and Mussolini.

Rienzi is certainly an uneven work but personally I think it is worth approaching without any kind of prejudice. It was Wagner’s first true success and without it, it is even possible that the rest of his work might not have become particularly well known. The question of the continuing veto at Bayreuth is another controversial point too: personally I would like it to be lifted, especially considering that it was Cosima and not Wagner himself who originally imposed it.

Because of recent history, it is almost impossible for any stage director to avoid comparisons with the 20th century, while it is also inevitable that such comparisons will be most sensitive in certain countries, particularly in Germany. Philipp Stölz’s new production grasps this nettle firmly,controversy and all. I have only seen one production of Rienzi before and this was Nicholas Hytner’s in London in 1983. He took much the same line as Stölz, although focused on the figure of Mussolini rather than Hitler as Stölz does here. I do not remember any scandal then, but that was in England, and it seems to me that the only way of avoiding problems in much of Europe would be to offer Rienzi in concert version, with consequent losses. As it happens, allowing for personal objections from part of the audience, this new Deutsche Oper production is a magnificent stage work.

During the overture we see Rienzi in the famous Berchtesgaden “Eagles Nest” complete with a huge window with a view of the Alps. Like Hitler, Rienzi seems to be enjoying Wagner’s music and there are also other allusions in the production to the Chaplin film The Great Dictator. Irene reminds us of Eva Braun to a great extent and Rienzi’s rise to power and its impact on the people, is symbolised by changing their coloured costumes into black and white uniforms. The Colonnas’ conspiracy and their pardon by Rienzi becomes an act of propaganda, with the dictator posing with each of the conspirators for film cameras, although later we also see film projections of their executions. The first part of the opera ends with a speech from Rienzi on a big screen, within a documentary called “Das Neues Rom”, which leaves no doubt that we are not in Rome, but in Germany.

In the second half we witness the fall of Rienzi with a stage set on two levels: the upper one shows the people suffering the consequences of the war, with the dictator’s henchmen rounding up all available men to defend the city, while there are more projections of Rienzi speeches which now simply the people’s disdain. On the lower level there is a bunker, where we see Rienzi, Irene and the dictator’s followers, playing with megalomaniac models of buildings. Further “New Rome” projections leave no doubt as to its location: the Grosse Stern and the Reichstag’s Dome announce it clearly. After the people’s revolt triumphs, Rienzi leaves the bunker but then returns to it, after being stabbed by Adriano. In his final aria, Rienzi plays with his models and bombs and after his final exit from the bunker he is killed by the mob. Inside in the bunker, Irene is executed while Adriano Colonna survives.

Philipp Stölz’s stage direction was extremely impressive, especially the crowd scenes. Costumes are very well-suited to his vision of the opera and the video projections are excellent, playing the same important role as they played in much 20th century propaganda. There are inconsistencies between libretto and what we see of course, and some situations are not easy to understand – like the fact that Colonna and Orsini are on stage at the end, after we thought they had been executed at the end of the first half. So, regardless of personal – and completely understandable – objections by some members of the audience, this seems to me a magnificent production, truly worth seeing.

The musical version used was not the original of course, but a shortened one, lasting only two hours and forty minutes. A Leipzig production reviewed by my colleague Jim Pritchard in 2007 was some 40 minutes longer.

The German conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing was in charge of the musical direction and his reading – full of strength and energy – drew a magnificent sound from the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, perhaps the best performance during this Wagner week. Mr. Lang Lessing put a lot of effort and dedication into this score and the result was bright and convincing even though there is no question that this opera is a mixture the good, the mediocre, and the very good indeed. Overall, the production and the musical performance combined sustained audience interest and special mention is due to the Deutsche Oper Chorus, who were absolutely outstanding. Their musical performance – always at the highest level – coupled with their amazing massed stage work, was truly great. There is no other word.

The protagonist Rienzi was sung by the tenor Torsten Kerl of whom I should say at once, that he had no problems at all with the role’s tessitura. He had some difficulties with vocal projection in the first half, where he had to sing from the middle and the back of the stage but was much better in the second half, singing from the bunker, and the front of the stage. He also turned in some amazing stage work and was a very good Rienzi, all told.

His sister – their relationship in this production isn’t clear – Irene was the Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, who sang a good performance with an attractive lyric voice, fine stage presence and acting in a role that is not, in fact, particularly demanding.

The American mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich however was the star of this cast as Adriano Colonna. Dramatically, the character is somewhat ambiguous and not at all the traditional hero. She produced a very pleasant voice, not over large, but was an excellent singer full of good taste and passion. She received the loudest cheers of the evening.

The secondary characters offered rather lower quality and some vocal unevenness. Ante Jerkunica as Steffano Colonna and tenor Clemens Bieber as Baroncelli were both good while Krzysztof Szumanski was a sonorous and coarse Paolo Orsini. Lenus Carlson, as Cardinal Orvieto, was slighlty on the poor side and Stephen Bronk as Cecco went mostly unnoticed.

There was a full house and many hopefuls with “suche karte” notices outside of the theatre. Although the creative team wasn’t on stage, there were signs of disapproval both for the production at the intermission and at the end of the opera. The triumph was undeniable for Kate Aldrich and the chorus, and there were also loud cheers for Torsten Kerl, Camilla Nylund and Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

There was a significant presence of foreigners – including me – in the theatre for this performance. Clearly, despite its problems, Rienzi still creates interest as well as fermenting passions: both essential ingredients for any opera of course.

José M Irurzun

Opera Today

The Voltaire maxim usually given in English as “The perfect is the enemy of the good” illuminates the artistic conflicts surrounding many a Wagner production.
With such large operas — in duration, cast, theme, and more — the viewer is best prepared to enjoy any production by foregoing Apollonian expectations. Wagner held himself to very high standards, of course, and one early victim of his search for perfect artistic self-expression was his opera Rienzi — Last of the Tribunes. Created around the same time as The Flying Dutchman, Wagner decided later that Rienzi fell into his early growth period, while Dutchman marked the beginnings of his artistic maturity. So Rienzi was banned from the Bayreuth canon, and indeed the opera has seldom been staged elsewhere, although there are some historic recordings available. What has kept the opera’s title alive is the popularity of its overture in performance and on classical music radio stations. The stirring nobility of the main theme and then the energetic propulsion of the middle section must have led many a listener to be curious about what the opera would be like, seen staged.

An answer — if partial — can be found in the ArtHaus DVD of a 2010 Deutsche Oper Berlin performance, directed by Philip Stötzl. Wagnerian perfectionists face two daunting challenges in enjoying the best of this staging: first, the radically edited version of the score created as the basis of this performance, and second, Stötzl’s decision to forego the setting and even tone of Wagner’s libretto for the sort of modern theatrical interpretation often described, not to say derided, as “regie.”

Set in 14th century Rome, Wagner’s original libretto had a sprawling cast of characters engaging in multiple subplots, but Stötzl cut away everything except the central story of the Roman tribune Rienzi, who becomes a hero to the people when, with the backing of the Church, he faces down a civil revolt. Somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to take leadership and find a final resolution to the conflict. A key member of one of the opposing factions, Adriano, falls in love with Rienzi’s devoted sister, Irene. Adriano pledges support to Rienzi, but other members of the rebelling factions attempt an assassination. Rienzi survives, but then he becomes as autocratic and oppressive as those he sought to subdue. Ultimately, civil war breaks out again, and Rienzi is killed, along with his sister Irene, who chooses her brother over Adriano, leaving the young man bereft.

That much of the story Stötzl communicates very clearly, but he does it through the iconic images of the Third Reich (although there is no specific Hitler parallel in Rienzi’s appearance). Under the overture, a gymnast in a fat military suit cavorts around a huge desk, a homage to Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator playing with a globe-shaped balloon. In his white suit and pulled back hair, Torsten Kerl as Rienzi has a quasi-Mussolini affect, but even from the beginning he seems unstable and unreliable as a force for bringing others together. His dissolution carries no tragic force, therefore, but tragedy is not Stötzl’s aim. The best of the score is known through that famous overture; otherwise, this is indeed early Wagner, the anarchic master locked into the rigid forms of a Meyerbeerian grand spectacle. Stötzl’s menacing yet comical tone turns out to be an effective gambit. And Kerl deserves a lot of credit, singing out with sustained power and thrust, but also fully invested in the production’s atmosphere. Kerl rivets the attention, even if the character often repels it.

In appearance Camilla Nylund is almost too spot-on as Irene — tall, attractive and blonde, Nylund embodies what might have once been called a vision of feminine Aryan beauty. She also physically overwhelms Kate Aldrich in the pants-role of Adriano, but Nylund doesn’t supplant Aldrich as a vocalist. Aldrich sings with great precision and passion, in a type of role that Wagner would never attempt again. While effective, Nylund lacks any special character to her soprano.

Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing doesn’t allow any of the score’s many edits to disrupt a potent, melodic flow. And for once a disc’s “special feature” is truly special — a 20-minute “making of” documentary that actually has interesting interviews and rehearsal glimpses that give a good sense of how a complex staging such as this comes together. Look for the moment when Nylund asks Stötzl why Irene doesn’t approach Rienzi when her libretto line states she is coming to his side, and a momentarily exasperated Stötzl points out that the production is far from literal. Whether one sympathizes with the singer’s inquiry or the director’s response, the exchange shows the kind of involvement of all parties that resulted in this unusual and frequently exciting production. Recommended.

Chris Mullins

Der Tagesspiegel

Volkstribun im Führerbunker: Philipp Stölzl riskiert Richard Wagners “Rienzi” an der Deutschen Oper Berlin.

Vielleicht fängt das Problem des Abends damit an, dass Heldentenöre und Diktatoren sich so wenig ähnlich sehen. Was macht den gemeinen Diktator aus, fragt man sich jetzt natürlich: das Oberlippenbärtchen eines Hitler, die Leibesfülle eines Idi Amin, das Echsenhafte eines Kim Jong-il? Torsten Kerl jedenfalls, der an der Deutschen Oper im Rahmen der Wagner-Wochen nun einen wirklich respektablen, konditionssicheren, kernig-fedrig timbrierten Rienzi singt, geht physiognomisch alles Fiese und Brutale ab. Wie ein gemütlicher Bully Herwig winkt er von der Riesenleinwand, die Regisseur und Co-Bühnenbildner Philipp Stölzl als Weltfenster über das Geschehen spannt und mit allerlei stilisiertem Reichsparteitagsgedöns in Riefenstahl-Manier bespielt. Überlebensgroß, mit scharfen Nasenkanten und schwarzen Augenringen, darf Kerl darauf Pantomime treiben, mal den eigenen Gesang synchronisierend, mal auch nicht, Propaganda für Fortgeschrittene, die Ufa lässt grüßen – und schon sind wir wieder bei Hitler.

Doch halt: Wieso soll Rienzi, Volkstribun im 14. römischen Jahrhundert, eigentlich Diktator sein, Schlächter, Menschenverächter? Er, der den Plebejern eine Verfassung gibt und Rechte gegen die Willkür des Adels, der Milde walten lässt, seine Gegner begnadigt und am Ende einer ordinären Intrige zum Opfer fällt? Die Antwort gibt die Rezeptionsgeschichte der Oper, die mit der historischen Figur und Wahrheit wenig zu tun hat: „Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen“, 1842 in Dresden uraufgeführt, war Adolf Hitlers Liebling. Damit hat die Partitur für alle Zeiten ihren Stempel weg (schlimmer noch als beim „Lohengrin“ oder der „Lustigen Witwe“), und dass sie sich so gar nicht dagegen wehrt, ja wehren kann, sagt einiges über ihre mangelhafte Qualität. Ob David Pountney 1998 in Wien oder Katharina Wagner 2008 in Bremen: Keine jüngere Inszenierung, so es nach 1945 überhaupt welche gegeben hat, kommt ohne Faschismus-Revue aus, mal verkitschter, mal infantiler.

Auch Stölzl haut kräftig in diese Kerbe. Hitlers Berghof fürs erste Bild mit Hirschgeweih und Alpenpanorama, anschließend Reichskanzlei und Führerbunker, dazwischen ein bisschen „Metropolis“ und „Les Misérables“. Wenigstens die Nahtlosigkeit, mit der dieses Konzept aufgeht, hätte einen pfiffigen Kopf wie Stölzl irritieren müssen. Tut es aber nicht – und das ist die eigentliche Enttäuschung. Bei aller Professionalität, mit der hier gearbeitet wird (Ulrike Siegrist für die Bühne, Kathi Maurer und Ursula Kudrna für die Kostüme, fettFilm für die Videosequenzen): Opernregie ist eben doch ein anderes Fach, als Kinofilme („Nordwand“, „Goethe!“) oder Werbeclips zu drehen, zumal bei einer derart heiklen, halbgaren Vorlage. In der Oper ist oft aufschlussreich, was sich sperrt, der Rest, der bleibt und sich entblößt. Mit illustrativem Denken und totalitärem Design allein (Mussolinis Schwarzhemden, aber auch Stalinistisches) kommt man da nicht weit.

Was nicht nur am Stück liegt. „Rienzi“ sei Giacomo Meyerbeers „beste Oper“, spottete einst Hans von Bülow. Tableaus, Ballette, Prozessionen, vollbusige Arien, weitschweifige Ensembles – als wollte der junge Wagner den Teufel mit dem Beelzebub austreiben, die von ihm so verhasste französische Grande Opéra mit eben dieser – aus eigener Feder. An die sechs Stunden dauert das Opus ungekürzt. Wenn Philipp Stölzl und der kurzfristig für Michail Jurowski eingesprungene Dirigent Sebastian Lang- Lessing sich daraus nun einen schlanken Dreistünder schnitzen (inklusive Pause!), dann ist das erstens nett und zweitens nicht unproblematisch. Denn wozu überhaupt „Rienzi“, wenn alles, was darin ästhetisch-proportional übel aufstoßen könnte, gestrichen wird?

Wagners große tragische Oper mag ein haltlos verquastes, höchst unverdauliches Machwerk sein, irgendwo zwischen Carl Maria von Weber und Hector Berlioz. Dem eingedenk setzt Stölzls Instant- Version radikal auf Action, feuert einen Knalleffekt nach dem anderen ab, statt sich je dem epischen Fluss der Musik anzuvertrauen. Vielleicht wäre es ehrlicher gewesen, sich die eigene Angst vor den besagten Resten einzugestehen und den „Rienzi“ für immer zu begraben. Selbst die Bayreuther Festspiele können sich bis heute nicht zu dieser „Jugendsünde“ ihres Meisters entschließen, mit Gründen.

Dennoch gibt es Momente an diesem teils heftig befehdeten Premierenabend an der Bismarckstraße, die lohnen. Die Ouvertüre zum Beispiel, einziges Prunkstück der Partitur, bekannt aus Funk und Fernsehen, ein überwältigend süffiges Perpetuum mobile: Wie Stölzl sein gut gepolstertes Rienzi-Double (Gernot Frischling) hier vor einem Trichter-Grammophon sukzessive völlig außer sich geraten lässt, Räder schlagend, auf Tische springend und am Ende mit wackeligen Beinchen zum veritablen Weltraumsimulatorenflug ansetzend, Musik als Allmachtsfantasie – das erinnert natürlich an Chaplins „Großen Diktator“ und darf es mit dem Zitat ruhig aufnehmen.

Oder Rienzis vermeintlicher Gnadenakt gegenüber den Adligen im zweiten Akt (was zwangsläufig wie eine Parodie auf den 20. Juli anmutet): Während man vorne Zeuge wird, wie der Tribun mit den Aufsässigen noch in die eilig herbeigekarrte Kamera grinst, verrät die Leinwand, was hinten und in Wahrheit geschieht. Ehe sein Führer sich’s versieht, schreitet das murrende Volk zur Selbstjustiz. Kopfschüsse, reihenweise. Krieg ist die Folge. Eine beklemmende Szene, auch weil sich hier für einmal die Mittel der Bühne mit denen der Live-Projektion sinnreich ergänzen.

An Rienzis Schicksal und Stölzls zu kurzem Griff ändert das wenig. Das Finale sieht den Diktator von den eigenen Leuten gemeuchelt, und ob er seine letzten Stunden nun wie Bruno Ganz in „Der Untergang“ am Stock und mit Parkinson-zittriger Hand verbringt, tut nicht viel zur Sache. Gravierender dürfte sein, dass Stölzl am Ende der Platz und die Luft ausgehen: Was wäre denn gewesen, so fragt man sich, wenn die Deutschen ihren Hitler tatsächlich beizeiten um die Ecke gebracht hätten? Ein kleines Schnipselchen nur von Stefan Herheims riesenmeilenstiefeligem Bayreuther „Parsifal“-Geschichtsbilderbogen, das hätte man sich hier gewünscht.

Die Liebesgeschichte um Rienzis drallblonde Schwester Irene (frisch und strahlend: Camilla Nylund) und den schmucken adeligen Colonna-Spross Adriano jedenfalls ist nicht dazu angetan, ein veritables Gegengewicht zu dem aufgefahrenen NS-Brimborium zu schaffen. Schade eigentlich, denn vor allem von Kate Aldrichs Adriano hätte man gern mehr gehört: ein schlanker, unerhört sauber geführter, leuchtender Mezzo, in der lyrischen Emphase ebenso zu Hause wie im dramatischen Ausbruch, immer fein nuanciert. Gegen ihre Bühnenpräsenz haben es die adeligen Herren (Ante Jerkunica als Vater Colonna, Krzysztof Szumanski als Paolo Orsisni) ein wenig schwer.

Überhaupt wird bemerkenswert musiziert. Der Chor (Einstudierung William Spaulding) leistet Großartiges, gerade im zweiten Teil, wenn sich die musikalischen Farben eindunkeln, das Geschehen sich bisweilen ins Piano duckt. Auch Sebastian Lang-Lessing im Graben macht seine Sache gut, lässt gleich in der Ouvertüre ein paar nagende Mittelstimmen an der Führer-Melodie kratzen – und das Orchester der Deutschen Oper folgt ihm gern. Gestalterisch fühlt er sich vielleicht noch nicht ganz frei, aber das ist bei diesem seltsamen Stück in dieser kruden Fassung eigentlich kein Wunder.

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