Pinchas Steinberg
Choeurs et Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse
7/10 October 2012
Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio
Cola Rienzi Torsten Kerl
Irene Marika Schönberg
Steffano Colonna Richard Wiegold
Adriano Daniela Sindram
Paolo Orsini Stefan Heidemann
Raimondo Robert Bork
Baroncelli Mark Heller
Cecco del Vecchio Leonardo Neiva
Friedensbote Jennifer O’Loughlin
Stage director Jorge Lavelli
Set designer Ricardo Sanchez Cuerda
TV director Denis Caîozzi

Rienzi was Wagner’s first success as an operatic composer, but from the very beginning it caused problems. On the first night the composer was much alarmed to discover that he had seriously underestimated the length of his imitation French grand opera, and that the performance ran on well past midnight. He had already apparently consented to some cutting of the score, but rather than countenance any further trimming he suggested that the opera should be split into two halves, running over two nights, and this proposal was adopted for subsequent presentations. Wagner even added a new prelude with which the second evening was to begin. Here the opera is split over two discs, corresponding to that split; but, as will be seen, the edition of the score here employed makes substantial further alterations.

The manuscript full score fell into the hands of Hitler during the period of the Third Reich, and he took it with him into the Berlin bunker in 1945 after which it was seen no more and was presumably destroyed. This has made it extremely difficult in subsequent years to determine exactly what Wagner’s original intentions were. There has only been one performance in the last half century which made a conscientious attempt to give us the unabridged score. That was the broadcast recording conducted by Sir Edward Downes in 1976, which has been intermittently available on CD in various pirated versions and was repeated by the BBC this year (2013). The only other recording which aimed at any degree of completeness was the EMI set conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser issued also in 1976 and largely reproducing the score as published by Eulenberg; this not altogether satisfactory recording is, oddly enough, currently available not only as an independent set but also within complete surveys of Wagner operas issued by both EMI and DG as bumper boxes. There have been other recordings which fall clearly into the historical or vintage category; and a 1983 recording (Orfeo) by Wolfgang Sawallisch, based on a Munich production in commemoration of the centenary of Wagner’s death, made substantial cuts totalling some half an hour of music. The production under consideration here also makes cuts, but oddly enough they are not the same as the ones made by Sawallisch, who made numerous small snips in passages which are given in full in this performance. The only major cut here in the first two Acts (apart from repeats) is the whole of the ballet sequence, totalling around a quarter of an hour of music; otherwise we are given the score more or less complete, even with some passages restored which were omitted by Hollreiser.

Mind you, Wagner would certainly not have regarded his extensive ballet music as a desirable omission. In 1851 he wrote of this pageant: “With the eyes of an opera composer, I perceived in it a self-evident festival that Rienzi must give to the people, and at which he would exhibit to them in dumb show a dramatic scene from their ancient history … That this pantomime has had to be omitted from stage performances has been a serious drawback.” From the beginning of the second DVD, with the start of Act Three the scissors are applied with greater vigour, with half of the opening scene omitted. The fact that we are not shown the recriminations levelled at Rienzi for showing excessive clemency to his enemies renders his later threats of vengeance unmotivated; and worse is to come. The Battle Hymn which opens the third scene is cut completely – it is, after the Overture and Prayer, the best-known section of the score, and still figures today in the repertory of many male choirs. Its disappearance makes the later reminiscences of the choral themes musically meaningless. In the opening scene of Act Four, Adriano’s address to the conspirators is subjected to pruning which leaves his motivation obscure; such trimming betrays a lack of confidence in the dramatic situation with which Wagner presents us, and which he sought to realise in the first performance with the employment of Wilhelmina Schröder-Devrient whom he had so admired for her assumption of the role of Leonora in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Even at this early stage of his career Wagner realised the importance of such dramatic credibility, and to overlook this aspect of his art inevitably carries penalties. Then in the final Act after Rienzi’s prayer a good third of the score goes missing, with substantial cuts in both of Irene’s duets with her brother and her lover – which reduces her part to that of a nonentity – and even in the closing scene Rienzi’s initial challenge to the threatening Roman mob is omitted.

In the title role Torsten Kerl is a tower of strength, far more heroic in sound than Hollreiser’s René Kollo or even Downes’s John Mitchinson. The part of his sister (or what remains of it) is well taken by Marika Schönberg, some squally high notes excepted. Daniela Sintram not only sings well as Adriano but looks convincingly masculine – Sawallisch unforgivably re-assigned this role to a male singer – even though the cuts rob her of the chance to portray a fully rounded dramatic character. However the remainder of the cast are a very woolly-sounding bunch, and Richard Wiegold is particularly disappointing with a voice that sounds a couple of sizes too small and unconvincing bottom notes to boot. Wagner specifies that the role of Baroncelli should be sung by a tenor, but here Marc Heller sounds very baritonal indeed. Even the more reliable Robert Bork sounds under-powered in the dramatic scene in which he excommunicates Rienzi.

Pinchas Steinberg obtains vigorous and expressive performances from both the orchestra and the chorus drawn from two different opera houses, reflecting his success in later Wagnerian scores such as Der fliegende Holländer. During the Overture we see him whipping up a storm with the orchestra, but the pictures are intercut with newsreel shots of various revolutionary activities – including the fall of the Berlin Wall – which add nothing to the viewer’s understanding of the music. It is not clear whether these shots formed part of the stage presentation, or are an addition for the video, but they are intrusive and misguided since the production as a whole is clearly placed in the revolutionary era of the mid-nineteenth century. Steinberg’s performance is however musically superior and more engaged than that of the often rather laid-back Hollreiser. The singing of his three principals is better too, which makes the cuts in their music all the more regrettable.

The production by Jorge Lavelli is minimal but generally effective, and thankfully sticks pretty closely to Wagner’s precisely described intentions even when the sense of place and grandeur is missing. The chalky-white make-up on the faces of the principals is initially distracting, but the histrionic ability of Kerl and Sintram in particular overcomes this difficulty triumphantly. Rienzi is surprisingly given a horse on which to make his entrance in Act Three; but the poor beast looks understandably and distractingly nervous, with rolling eyes and twitching ears, as the tenor on its back lets rip. The sets sometimes are very effective, as in the excommunication scene and the burning of the Capitol; otherwise they are merely functional. The direction of the singers is quite prescriptive – Lavelli cites limited rehearsal time in his interview on the disc – and in consequence one does not always feel that the individuals really inhabit their roles. The bare stage means that Wagner’s frequent instructions for characters to enter unseen from amongst the crowd are rendered impossible to realise effectively. The chorus are all too often simply kept bunched in concert formation, which robs them of any real sense of involvement in the action. Given the fact that two choirs are involved, they still seem regrettably lacking in numbers to represent the Roman mob, only finding a degree of dramatic involvement in the final scene.

There is a substantial bonus in the shape of interviews with many of the individuals involved in the production. Subtitles are provided in German, English, French and Korean for the opera, but only in English for the bonus track. During these interviews Steinberg seeks to justify his cutting of the score on the grounds of practicality for the singer taking the title role, although this rather sidesteps the fact that the cuts are principally applied elsewhere; would Steinberg contemplate similar cutting in the even more strenuous parts of Siegfried and Tristan? Torsten Kerl proves to be a highly intelligent heldentenor who has clearly given careful thought to the problems created by Wagner’s personality and in particular his anti-Semitism. Jorge Lavelli goes out of his way to regret the excision of the ballet, the dramatic impact of which he recognises; but it is startling to hear him give Wagner’s date of death as 1888, an error which is faithfully rendered into the English subtitles.

There is another video recording of Rienzi available, also with Torsten Kerl in the title role, but this commits the cardinal error of directly identifying the leading character with Hitler – which completely abnegates the essentially benevolent nature of Rienzi, both in historical fact and even more so in Wagner’s treatment of him derived from Bulwer-Lytton’s novel. Those wanting a DVD version of Rienzi which avoids such ridiculous solecisms have only this version available to them – and it is a pretty good one at that.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


‘Only the very wise can so clearly perceive the very obvious’ was one thought when the 81 year-old stage director Jorge Lavelli – Franco-Italian out of Argentina and a star in French musical theatre since the 1970s – arrived for his curtain call at this October 2012 production. In four minutes less than three hours – still a stunning 104 minutes of music less than the essential (but seemingly never to be properly issued) Edward Downes Manchester studio recording – Lavelli and conductor Steinberg make much sense of (at least) the personal drama of Wagner’s grand Romantic opera. Ceremony is simply done here – a huge empty space flanked by steel military walls, filled with people and (occasionally) red boundary ropes, lit in bold strokes like a ballet. Kind of old-fashioned – a Wieland Wagner ised Brecht – but also more than kind of effective. Simple, obvious, wise.

The opera’s central trio are Torsten Kerl, very much Europe’s Rienzi now and the star too of the 2010 Berlin production which appeared on DVD two years ago, the sexy Marika Schönberg as his sister Irene and Daniela Sindram as Adriano, her noble lover on the wrong side. They pace themselves well; even with the blue pencil this is big singing. The production makes very clear the moment that Rienzi peaks – gloating over his now twice-defeated and this time slain enemies in Act 3 – and that his biggest problem is as much his sister’s love life as any incipient fascist tendencies. (It’s a relief not to see the title-role Hitler ised for once.) As in Berlin, the chorus and Nobles are Brechtianised and abstracted (white face, uniform costumes) but Lavelli doesn’t trumpet this with their every appearance. Ditto the all-over black-and-white look, which serves to accentuate well the few moments in colour, such as Rienzi’s Act 4 excommunication.

You don’t get the ballet, you don’t get the extended act finales (perhaps the most pity) and you don’t get repeats. We’re still at the level of a Rienzi snapshot but it’s longer (by 20 minutes) and a dramatically and musically more coherent picture of the behemoth than the Berlin show provided. For the first time since ENO’s regrettably lost and unrecorded Nicholas Hytner/David Fielding production I was moved. Good sound, sensible pictures and a well-rehearsed musical result. Buy it – but keep campaigning for the Downes.


Performances of Rienzi typically feature a good many cuts, usually reducing the opera by a third to more than a half. That might sound as though the conductors and stage directors historically have been a little too aggressive with the scalpel. But consider the fact that the 1842 premiere reportedly lasted six hours! An authentic or definitive score of the opera seems not to exist: the original Rienzi manuscript was apparently destroyed, courtesy of Wagner admirer Adolf Hitler who had it with him in his bunker in 1945 when the advancing Russians were sweeping through Berlin.

The most complete recording of Rienzi came in 1976 and was led by the late Sir Edward Downes – it lasted about four hours and forty minutes! This new performance on Opus Arte has a duration of nearly three hours. An overly truncated version, you’re thinking? Well, taking into account the fact that Wagner supplied a plethora of choruses, preludes, postludes, marches and other music not really integral to the story, one can see there is a strange sort of dichotomy here: the more music you get, the more art you lose.

After viewing this version of Rienzi, I can confidently opine that it serves the work well, hardly conveying a sense that the opera is padded or bloated. Moreover – and more importantly – it makes its case quite convincingly because the performances overall are excellent.

Rienzi portrays the story of the 14th century Roman Cola di Rienzi, who gets involved in the conflict between the Colonna and Orsini families, both of noble background. In his actions here and with the people’s struggle against the nobility, he gains support of the Church. However, after averting an assassination attempt, he becomes a target of both the people and Church, owing to the bloodshed from putting down an uprising wherein the Colonna and Orsini family leaders are killed. Rienzi, along with his sister Irene and Adriano (her lover), die in a fire at the Capitol building set by the nobles.

Torsten Kerl as Rienzi is simply splendid. He knows the role well, having recorded it in 2010 with the Deutsche Oper on the Arthaus Musik label, issued on both DVD and Blu-ray. That version, by the way, was twenty minutes shorter than this one! Marika Schoenberg as Irene is also very good here, as is Daniela Sindram in the trouser role of Adriano. The remainder of the cast is fine as well and the chorus and orchestra perform quite convincing, not least because of the excellent leadership of conductor Pinchas Steinberg, whose spirited tempo selections and deft shaping of the score infuse the opera with a momentum that rarely lets up.

What is a little odd about this production are the historical film clips interspersed throughout performance of the Overture. They include scenes of protest and unrest in Europe and elsewhere, dating from pre-World War II up to current times, including the 1990 fall of the Berlin Wall. Obviously, they are used to signify historical struggles between the people and ruling classes. The sets on stage are sparse and lacking in color, though ultimately effective and atmospheric. Characters appear in whiteface makeup throughout and, in an adroitly imaginatively stroke, the Plebes and Patricians are rather indistinct from each other: either of their causes would seem as justifiable or as unworthy as the other.

The camera work, picture clarity and sound reproduction are exceptionally fine to round out this excellent issue. The bonus tracks feature some interesting interviews with cast members, stage director Jorge Lavelli, conductor Pinchas Steinberg and artistic director of the Capitole Toulouse, Frédéric Chambert. For those interested in Wagner and mid-19th century opera, this is probably a must.

Opera News

“Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab….” The grave radiance of the hero’s prayer from the twenty-seven-year-old Wagner’s Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes has found superstar champions from Lauritz Melchior to Jonas Kaufmann. For listeners who wish to seek no further, two excuses will serve: Wagner disowned the opera, and Hitler adored it. Then again, these might be reasons to take a hard look.
The third of the master’s works to be completed, the second to be performed, and the first to survive its premiere, Rienzi mimics the blockbuster style then in vogue in Paris. Cheered to the rafters at its Dresden premiere in 1842, its pageantry, high-flown rhetoric and grand tragic design epitomized a fustian past the later Wagner meant his Artworks of the Future to sweep away. Yet Rienzi’spopularity endured into the early twentieth century. Its performance history since then has been sporadic but unbroken. A partial roll call, in chronological order, of heldentenors who have passed along the last tribune’s torch runs from the now “historic” Max Lorenz, Wolfgang Windgassen, Giuseppe di Stefano (?!), and René Kollo to our contemporaries Robert Dean Smith and Christopher Ventris. Audio is out there in abundance.
But right now and for the foreseeable future, the stupendoustitle rolebelongs to German heldentenor Torsten Kerl, the only Rienzi to date to have made his way to video, first in Philip Stölzl’s production for Deutsche Oper Berlin (2010), now in Jorge Lavelli’s for the Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse (2012). In both versions, Kerl is in full command, unfazed by the fiendishly high tessitura, grandiloquent of phrase, purposeful and trenchant with text. As an actor, he simply eats up the stage. The full moon of his features in whiteface (worn in both shows) changes phase in no time from soft to severe, evoking now Leoncavallo’s weeping Canio, now some National Treasure from the Grand Kabuki.
Like Stölzl, Lavelli views Rienzi through the prism of totalitarianism, projecting Rienzi onto the fascist demagogues of the twentieth century. Like Stölzl, Lavelli relies heavily on newsreels, chalked faces and masked masses. But where Stölzl’scinematic and expressionist flourishes add up to triumphant total theater, Lavelli’s dull, relentlessly symmetrical tableaux just die there, exposing the inherent hollowness of the conceit. Rienzi’s agenda in strife-torn Rome is to restore peace and the rule of law. To this end, he sacrifices personal vengeance and tempers justice with ill-timed clemency. Neither the brutish nobles nor the fickle commoners forgive him for the idealism that is his fatal flaw. If, as is said, Hitler identified with Rienzi, any parallel existed only in his sentimental, self-deluding dreams.
In the trouser role of the aristocrat Adriano, torn between clan loyalty and his love for Rienzi’s sister, Daniela Sindram makes a frazzled start but displays bright, slashing authority later on, when the stakes are highest. The proto-Sieglinde to Rienzi’s proto-Siegmund, Marika Schönberg’s Irene all but oozes dazed incestuous devotion. It’s too much, but she spears her high notes with abandon. In the cameo of the Messenger of Peace, Jennifer O’Loughlin pipes like the sweetest of Forest Birds. For the rest, the singing in the lesser parts ranges from unobjectionable to indefensible. Originally performed with cuts in Dresden and in subsequent revivals, the manuscript of Rienzi seems last to have been accounted for in Hitler’s bunker. For the BBC Northern Symphony, British conductor Edward Downes reconstructed the score as completely as possible. His recording clocks in at an epic four and a half solid hours of music, including a forty-minute pantomime. The Berlin version, credited to Philip Stölzl and Christian Baier, comes to a brisk two and a half hours. The Toulouse edition, prepared by conductor Pinchas Steinberg, runs an expansive three hours, delivered with momentum, brio and spells of hazy introspection, all valuable commodities here. spacer



Much like with Boris Godunov (S&H review here), the first order of reviewing Wagner’s Rienzi consists of establishing which version is being performed. Unlike with Boris, there is technically only one version of Rienzi, since the original score, of which no copies exist, was lost in Hitler’s bunker. But there are numerous different cuts to consider, apart from those that Wagner made for the Dresden performances—the orchestral parts of which are the basis for any score produced these days.
The difference can be vast: Between Edward Downes’s version from 1967 and the one offered in Berlin two years ago, there are over two hours of music difference: present in the Downes, missing from the Berlin version. I’m torn between siding with the defenders of the more integral versions, and realizing that Rienzi has a real need for major cuts. Wagner’s libretto, for starters, has little dramatic power to it: There simply isn’t enough happening during the first three acts. But then the score has its moments of interest, even if it isn’t the opera I should take with me to the desert island. Toulouse’s Capitole struck a balance and offered a Rienzi with almost three net hours of music.
Toulouse’s Rienzi is directed by Jorge Lavelli, whose work is characterized by minimalism and timeless action. During the first half of the opera the stage is enclosed by metal walls, opening in the second half to show a larger space behind them. Just a few props help to the development of the action: a platform for the failed murder of Rienzi, a beautiful (real) white horse on which Rienzi rides, and a raised podium for Rienzi to ie at the hands of the people. The costumes are timeless and nicely contrasting the different protagonists: priests, military, and common people.
The choirs is treated as a single character, always moving as one. Jorge Lavelli narrates the story with clarity, giving great attention to the role of the Church, the true protagonist in what might be called The Rise and Fall of Rienzi. Overall, Philipp Stölzl’s Berlin production that identifies Rienzi as Hitler seems more interesting, though.
Pinchas Steinberg is a frequent conductor in Toulouse and I’ve enjoyed his musical performances during the last ten years. His performances of operas by Wagner and Richard Strauss have always been excellent. His reading of Rienzi, too, was full of energy and vitality, well suited to what this music needs. He got a great performance from the Capitole’s orchestra, which is the best in some 400 miles around. The Choirs were also excellent in a very demanding opera for them.
The character of Rienzi has lots to sing and an uncomfortable tessitura—not the stuff many tenors eagerly seek out. That has left Torsten Kerl to become the reference to the role, who also sang in the above mentioned performance in Berlin. He was excellent all along and it can be considered a luxury to have him as Rienzi in Toulouse. The Swedish soprano Marika Schönberg was Irene, Rienzi’s sister, and her stage performance was better than her singing. Her vocal range is wide enough, but her singing is quite uncontrolled, always inclined to forte and fortissimo, and with a top register uncomfortably close to screaming.
Adriano Colonna is the more thankful character in this opera, and Wagner gave to him/her plenty moments to shine. Daniela Sindram sang with conviction and control in a remarkable performance. The other characters were properly covered. Among them I should mention Robert Bork as Cardinal Orvieto and the excellent Jennifer O’Loughlin as the Messenger of Peace.
José MªIrurzun

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Opus Arte
Opus Arte
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DD 5.1, DTS 5.1 (DVD)
1920×1080, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (BD)