May 30

Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen, by Richard Wagner, performed by the Deutsche Oper Berlin ??

Wagner wrote three early operas that are relatively unknown since they are rarely performed, including die Feen, das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi. They are operas that are not typical of  Wagner’s mature style, but do show development toward the final Wagnerian style. Rienzi is the opera that launched Wagner’s career as a musician, and several of the pieces including the overture are still occasionally performed. There were no available movie versions of this opera until this performance came out, so I decided to buy it, especially with the reasonable reviews given to it by Amazon.com reviewers. This performance has its merit. The singers were faultless, acting and singing well. The recording was high quality, though there were often problems with mixing of the sound of the singers and the orchestra, in that the orchestra tended to drown out the voices on stage.

My problem with this performance is the staging. I don’t object to modern versions of operas, so long as they don’t distract from the story and theme of the original opera. If the staging is such that it creates another theme or story than the original opera, or if it restricts itself to being solely a commentary on either the opera or the composer, then it should not be considered as a legitimate version of the opera. I recall the Peter Sellars versions of various operas that attempted contemporary contextualization of 18th and 19th century operas, yet they were never sold as straight opera renditions. Creative license with modern European staging tends to destroy the composers intent, and this should be overtly stated. It would be like re-writing a Beethoven symphony for a Jazz band but calling it the original symphony. Liszt did not have the audacity to do that, but was willing to call his transcriptions something else, and bizarre creative staging should be called something other than the original opera.

The staging used in this performance is indeed bizarre. The citizens of Rome come out masked at first, eventually removing their masks and donning suits that looked more like Soviet peasant outfits. Rienzi and his daughter appeared more like Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun than a noble Roman tribune. The themes of Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini prevailed, forcing the entire opera into an entirely other interpretation. Adriano, the traitor, is made into the hero, and Rienzi is reduced to totalitarian scum. The final scene, with Rienzi in Hitler’s bunker and Speer’s model of the new Berlin before him was exceptionally distractive to the aria “Allmächtiger Gott…” and completely out of place. The videos of Rienzi as a totalitarian propagandist before microphones appearing on television were seriously distracting. Wagner’s character development in the opera was completely re-written. The behind the scenes slaughter of the assassins at the end of act 1 altered the story of the opera. This is not the way Wagner intended the opera to be, and the staging was too divergent from the actual opera story to be legitimate. I’d rather just listen to a recording than to watch what Stölzl has given us.

Whatever one may think of Wagner, I suggest that performances should leave Wagner alone. It is true that Wagner was a truly despicable  egotistical, racist person, yet his composing is sublime. It is quite easy to see his anti-Jewish sentiments throughout his operas, which must be overlooked. Thankfully, many Jewish Wagner conductors and performers have been able to do that, producing some of the best performances of Wagner in existence (eg., James Levine’s Ring, Leonard Bernstein’s Tristan und Isolde). To be obsessed with mid-twentieth century totalitarianism when performing a Wagner opera deprives the opera of its legitimate interpretation and reduces the performance to just another case of Euro Trash.

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