Three Reasons Why Wagner’s Rienzi is Rarely Performed

Thursday, October 25, 2012 - 12:00 AM

'Rienzi' at Leipzig Opera 'Rienzi' at Leipzig Opera (Andreas Birkigt)

Wagner’s Rienzi is an opera that hardly ever gets produced by major companies. F. Paul Driscoll, editor-in-chief of Opera News, gives three simple reasons why you never see it in production.  

1: Wagner wasn't proud of it

One problem might have to do with the fact that Hitler owned the autographed score, which was destroyed when he died in 1945. “But the principal reason it’s not done that much,” Driscoll said, “is that Wagner himself didn’t like it.” the composer disavowed Rienzi along with two other early operas (Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot) because they "sounded too Italian." They were his "immature operas." And he refused to have any of the three performed at Bayreuth. After he died, Wagner's widow Cosima ruled Bayreuth with an iron hand and kept the ban in place. Wagner’s family followed suit.

But the ban will be lifted next summer during the ‘Wagner Year’ (2013), and all eyes and ears will be glued on the festival house when Christian Thielemann conducts the Bayreuth premieres of each of the three neglected works.

In the case of Rienzi, Driscoll says that he hopes Thielemann applies some judicious cuts at the Bayreuth performance. “When Rienzi had its premiere in Dresden,” he tells us, “the performance lasted more than six hours!” He goes on to explain that Rienzi is not particularly well written. It doesn’t move along fluidly. As a result, the opera seems long rather than connected and inevitable like the Ring Cycle and Die Meistersinger,

 

2: The Title Role is Murder

The second reason why Rienzi is rarely performed is that the title role is extremely difficult. "For me there’s no real payoff,” Driscoll said. “He sings and talks and argues and exhorts and never really has a moment where he can relax into a character. His most difficult singing is "Rienzi’s Prayer," which comes in Act V. The aria was created for a tenor who was evidently a singing machine. So I guess for that type of person you’re still fresh after five hours. But most modern singers would look for something a little bit more reasonably paced.”

Two legendary tenors as Rienzi:

Lauritz Melchior was the heldentenor of all heldentenors. He was a Danish artist who made it big in Europe and then ruled the "Wagner roost" at the Metropolitan Opera throughout the 1930s and '40s. Melchior recorded Rienzi’s aria more than once. The recording here was made in London in 1930.

Melchior singing ‘Rienzi’s Prayer’


Max Lorenz was a German tenor who was a big star at Bayreuth. He was an extraordinary artist. There are films of him in rehearsal in Bayreuth. You can’t quite believe the ease and the power with which the voice just pours out of him. “I can see how Wagner’s daughter-in-law, Winifred, could not imagine having a festival without that kind of talent.” Driscoll said.

Max Lorenz as Rienzi singing Erstehe, hohe Roma, neu!


3: The Best Female Aria Goes to a Minor Character

According to Driscoll, the third and final reason that Rienzi is rarely performed is that the best female aria goes to a minor character. “The female principal who is sung by a female and is playing a female is Rienzi’s sister, Irene,” says Driscoll. “But Irene’s boyfriend – Adriano – is sung by a female singer. The big aria and the big moment for female voice is Adriano’s neat little aria that comes in at about two-and-a-half minutes long which basically says ‘Where am I? What am I doing?’ It’s a terrific piece for soprano or mezzo soprano….but it’s a character that you could essentially remove from the central action and still have the plot move forward.”

Janis Martin singing ‘Wo bin ich’:

Should Rienzi be performed more frequently? Have you seen a performance that was particularly memorable? Please leave your comments below:

Guests:

F. Paul Driscoll and Tristan Kraft

Produced by:

Margaret Kelley and Midge Woolsey

More in:

Comments [12]

I posted this note yesterday in slightly garbled form. This version should read better.

Each of the three early operas I've called Wagner's Orphans (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323716304578481431543314390) is fascinating in its own way; Rienzi is by no means an exception. For accuracy, I'd like to point out that these operas were NOT performed at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in the summer of 2013, as suggested in the story above, but in the Oberfrankenhalle, an unrelated and from all reports quite miserable venue. Of Rienzi, two versions are available on DVD, both starring the very remarkable Torsten Kerl. The preferable staging is Philipp Stözl's for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin--a rare case of Regietheater that gets just about everything right.

Jan. 09 2014 07:42 PM

Each of the three early operas I've called Wagner's Orphans (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323716304578481431543314390) is fascinating in its own way; Rienzi is by no means an exception. For accuracy, I'd like to point out that they were NOT performed at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in the summer of 2013, as suggested in the story above, but in the Oberfrankenhalle, an unrelated and from all reports quite miserable venue. Two versions are available on DVD, both starring the very remarkable Torsten Kerl. The preferable staging is Philipp Stözl's for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin--a rare case of Regietheater that gets just about everything right.

Jan. 08 2014 07:20 PM
Tranié (Pierre)

21.8.2013
J'ai vu cette nuit Rienzi à la télévision. Mise en scène: Jorge Lavelli, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse sous la direction de Pinchas Steinberg, avec Torsten Kerl et Marika Schönberg.
Je n'ai pas aimé ce concert pour deux principales raisons:
1°) Sur la forme: une mise en scène lugubre auprès de laquelle un convoi mortuaire paraît riant
2°) Sur le fond un opéra qui ne laisse pas de repos aux chanteurs - dont j'admire la performance -ni de place à l'orchestre. Or à mon sens une des fonctions importantes de l'orchestre est de laisser respirer les chanteurs et de favoriser la méditation des auditeurs entre deux séquences.

Aug. 21 2013 04:32 AM
Alun Preece from Cardiff, Wales, UK

Rienzi is most unjustly neglected. The overture is fantastic: I instantly fell in love with Wagner's music on hearing an extract from it in a movie on Liszt in 1963.

It has taken 50 years for me to find a performance I could attend (5 May in Krefeld - a marvellous performnce, which only took 150 minutes+an interval).

It was on BBC Radio 3 in about 1973, when they did all Wagner's operas in chronological order over 3 months on Sunday afternoons. Going to see it in Bayreuth on 7 July, and hoping WNO (Welsh National Opera) will do it after their current runaway success with Lohengrin under Lothar Koenigs.

Jun. 07 2013 05:18 AM
Harriet Bell from Lafayette, In

I bought a 36 CD set of Wagner operas. It had Rienzi. When I heard it, it loved it. I like it more than some on the well known ones. After hearing it I think it should be performed some so people will know it.

Nov. 20 2012 03:33 PM

I've seen the opera staged twice (in Germany and in San Antonio, Texas!) and the opera is full of action, pageantry, and excitement, with a finale achieving the usual Wagnerian catharsis. Although Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, from the same year as Rienzi, has a pants role, the Italians had long given up the tradition of mezzo-soprano heroes by 1842, it is almost touching to see Wagner (of all people!) looking backwards in this opera to an Italian tradition he revered, at least at one period in his life (see YouTube for a magisterial performance of the aria for Oroveso he wrote to be interpolated into Norma). But in addition to its historical, and even curiosity, value, the opera works for me. A concert version gives only part of the picture.

Nov. 06 2012 12:18 PM

I find this particular opera quite RRRROUSING (WOW....terrific stuff)

Oct. 31 2012 02:17 PM
William Clark from Queens, New York

I love Reinzi but than again I love all of Wagner's operas.

Oct. 29 2012 05:37 PM
Eugene H. Roth

I saw and heard a performance of "Rienzi" at The ENO IN london in the summer of 1964. It was loud, endlessly hectoring and a colossal bore. I never want to hear it again. It made me long for PARSIFAL.

Oct. 27 2012 12:39 PM
Tarara Boumdier from Arkieopolis

But it sure has some overture.

Oct. 26 2012 09:15 PM
Ralph Cavaliere from Massapequa, L.I. New York

The historical Rienzi was an Italian patriot,turned despot when fighting for a unified Italy...TWICE! (He was exiled the first time, but the second time he came back and played the despot, he was killed and his body mutilated by the populace.) Benito Mussolini had once said how history might remember him and his legacy, but, he would not want to end up like 'Cola de Rienzi. Premonition? Unfortunately, he did. Killed and mutilated just as Rienzi was. Another reason for the opera's, "Ban"?... It's food for thought...

Oct. 26 2012 05:53 PM
ardath_bey

Wagner *wished* Rienzi and the two other bombs sounded Italian, then people would give two figs.

The real reason Rienzi is rarely performed is that it's dreadful. I saw it at Carnegie Hall under Queler and the only worthy music is the overture. Then it's noise and ugliness for 5 hours, even Wagner hated it, so don't be subjected to it.

Instead of these 3 monstrosities, perhaps Bayreuth should offer the 3 Queens by Donizetti, that theater would finally at long last hear glorious music written for humans, not machines.

Oct. 25 2012 12:15 PM

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