Wagner's Rienzi is rarely performed. It is now quite clear to me why. This an apprentice work which has deservedly fallen into obscurity. Deutsche Oper performed a heavily cut version clocking in at some two and a half hours. The original premiere apparently lasted six. All I can say is, Lord preserve me from ever having to listen to it.
The basic problem is very very simply. This is a distinctly uninspired score. It doesn't quite invite the remark made by cabaret duo Kit and the Widow about Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard (“We wanted to pay tribute to the big tune in Sunset Boulevard...the trouble is we couldn't find one). Wagner does have one big tune. Unfortunately he has already used it by the end of the overture (and on several occasions thereafter). Elsewhere there is the occasional moment when one is deceived that something musically engaging is going to happen, but it doesn't really. Instead the evening plods on, and on, and...well you get the idea.
For once no blame can really be attached to the production, although again the highpoint comes during the overture which features Hitler/Mussolini (there is some merging of historical personages at work here) sitting in Berchtesgarden, conducting a gramophone. Thereafter we are on a gradually declining slope from chaos of Weimar, through Fuhrer rallies and disastrous war to the Bunker. Torsten Kerl in the title role becomes nicely deranged – his bulging eyes in the filmed sections are especially notable. The chorus keep on stoically in a production which often by its positioning did not appear to be doing their sound and precision any favours. Generally, visually, it looks fine, but it can't rescue the score. It also has to be said that things become a tad confused and repetitive after the interval. After you have seen Kerl hammily delivering a speech once the novelty value is past. In addition, the management of personnel is problematic – Adriano apparently fails to assassinate Rienzi, is then locked up in the bunker (fully in view of the audience) but soon emerges having without difficulty escaped to try and persuade Irene to flee. The final disappointment comes at the conclusion when, given the bunker setting, I had anticipated some fire – there is sadly none to be seen and quite frankly this is a opera that badly needs some such visual excitement by this point!
Of the singers the standout by a country mile was Daniela Sindram's performance as Adriano. Combining a wonderfully rich chest voice with some ringing top notes she was a joy to listen to. Torsten Kerl keeps nobly on through the heavy title role, but the voice lacks freshness and in too many places sounded over-strained. Manuela Uhl as Irene received loud bravos from the audience but I'm afraid I pretty wholly dissented. She had a couple of full force moments of power but elsewhere the voice was squally, the passage work was desperately strained often unpleasant to listen to and to my ear her tuning sounded questionable.
The Chorus and Orchestra again did some good work, but they were not up to the standard set in performances earlier this week of Lohengrin and Jenufa. There were noticeable fluffs to entries, and a general weakening of precision. Sebastian Lang-Lessing in the pit directed matters fairly serviceably, but the weaknesses of the score are such that this is probably not the fairest test of his capacities.
The completionist in me is glad to be able to tick Rienzi off the list of operas I haven't seen. I think it rather unlikely that I shall ever need to see it again. There are quite a few things I criticise the British houses for not staging, this will not be one of them.