WAGNER: Rienzi (complete opera) – Peter Bronder (Rienzi)/ Christiane Libor (Irene)/ Falk Struckmann (Steffano Colonna)/ Claudia Mahnke (Adriano)/ Daniel Schmutzhard (Paolo Orsini)/ Frankfurt Opera Chorus and Orch./ Sebastian Weigle – Oehms Classics OC 941 (3 CDs), 155:51 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
It was 1842 when the long-delayed premiere of Rienzi finally took place. Only nine years later Wagner would be a wanted man hiding in Switzerland. Based on a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Rienzi examines the career of the Papal notary, appointed tribune by the Roman populace to defend against a corrupt aristocracy, and eventually brought down hard—a classic fall from power do to the machinations of others. But this opera, only his third, was quite a success for the then 24-year old, and in fact would remain the most popular work during his lifetime. It would not last though. And eventually he rejected it; it’s never been performed at Bayreuth.
Probably because of Hitler, who co-opted the overture as a tribute to the German Land (and received a score as a gift on his fiftieth birthday) Rienzi has been consigned to the also-rans of operatic history, with the exception of the rousing overture, which is still performed quite often, ironically even at “pops” concerts. Part of the problem may have also been its length, at least a full six hours for Paris (the French demanding, as usual, lots of ballet music and choruses) and gradually whittled down ever since then, though he did sanction some cuts. There are some who complain about this fractured presentation, but frankly the opera begins to wear thin, even really thin, once you hit the four-hour mark, and nothing is lost in the storyline when a much shorter version is given. The score was lost during WWII.
Up till now I think that the Heinrich Hollreiser/Dresden Staatskapelle presentation on EMI has been, almost by critical consensus, the quality leader in recordings to this point, and it’s no spring chicken. It’s also a full hour longer than this one, but again, I don’t really miss it—Rienzi is likely to succeed in this day and age only in a truncated from. The singing is outstanding, with Peter Bronder in splendid form as the eponymous hero, while Christiane Libor makes a splendid Irene. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, though it must be noted that this opera is not one where the individual roles prove paramount. Wagner has written success into the story such that it proves immune from even less-than-stellar performances in most cases.
The sound is very analog-like, with a rather closed soundstage, and one wishes for a broadening of the aural dynamic. Nonetheless, any Rienzi these days must be welcomed, even though it is far from what I would call a “definitive” rendition, even though the pacing is exciting, and nowhere near a state-of-the-art-recording.