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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

DVD Review: Wagner and the Fascist Beast

Deustches-Oper Berlin takes on Hitler's favorite opera Rienzi
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Torsten Kerl as Rienzi, rising above the rabble.
Photo by Bettina Stöß © 2010 Deutsches Oper Berlin
This DVD presents a bold re-interpretation of this early opera by Richard Wagner. The title character is re-imagined as a 20th century dictator with a uniform fetish, who rises to power on the back of the common people, only to be killed in an underground bunker in the last act. (Sound like anyone you've heard of?) It's fitting that this brilliant staging by Philipp Stölzl was filmed at the Deutsches Oper Berlin in 2010. It's the first Rienzi on video, and the first essential Wagner DVD to be released in some time.

Rienzi is Wagner's third opera. It is his longest work: (five acts, six hours) a gigantic grand opera in the manner of Meyerbeer.  Philipp Stölzl cut the score severely for this performance, chopping out ballets, finales, choruses, processions, and whole swaths to get it down to a lean two and a half hours.  The truncation of the score is clever, if ruthless.

This music is very different from mature Wagner. He wrote it when he was 26, and by time the opera was premiered (eight years later) the ever-restless composer had moved on to Der Fliegende Höllander and was already planning Tannhäuser. The Deutsches Oper Berlin orchestra plays brilliantly under the baton of Stephen Lang-Lessing. The decision to  retain Wagner's early (and sometimes clumsy) orchestrations intact gives the work charm and shows the care that went into this performance.

Heldentenor Torsten Kerl gives a moving performance in the title role, singing with a high, penetrating tone that blooms into moments of sweetness. This part has hellish difficulties written into it by the young, ambitious Wagner. Much declamatory singing is required, forcing the tenor to be heard over a heavy orchestra. Mr. Kerl rises to the challenge, soaring to an impressive height for the moment when Rienzi rejects the crown in Act Two.

His best singing is in the final act, during Rienzi's prayer. This famous scene (its main theme is the backbone of the Overture) unfolds with a warm outpouring of tone as it rises to its climax. In the final scene, Mr. Kerl loose with his full instrument, and the effect is devastating.

Soprano Kate Aldrich is a potent figure in the trouser role of Adriano Colonna, the would-be assassin who is also in love with Rienzi's sister Irene. As Irene, soprano Camilla Nylund sings with hard, bright tone that fits the role of Rienzi's chief lieutenant and collaborator. There is the chilling suggestion of incest in their sibling relationship. The other star of this show is the Deutsches Staatsoper's main and auxilary choruses, who do remarkable work in this opera's many public scenes.

The production makes extensive use of back-projected films by fettFilm (Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs). Cribbing from the films of Leni Riefensthaal (most notably Triumph of the Will) the films are used as on-set propaganda and a narrative device throughout.

The costume design (by the team of Kathi Maurer and Ursula Kudrna) is also clever. In the second act, the onstage mob of Roman citizens takes off their civilian colors to reveal chiaroscuro uniforms, emblazoned with the "Diamond-R" rune that serves as the symbol of Rienzi's government. As the dictator comes to power, all color is bled out of Rome. The effect is terrifying.

Rienzi was Hitler's favorite opera. In 1905, the 16-year-old dictator-to-be attended a performance in Linz, Austria. That may have inspired much of the iconography, (and some of the the political philosophy) adopted by the former house painter as he led Germany down the path of genocide and destruction. So it's understandable that it doesn't get performed much. By re-imagining the work in this radical new way, the creative forces behind this staging may have actually redeemed it. Wagner would have been pleased.

Watch the trailer for Rienzi here.

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