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Monday, January 30, 2012

Opera Review: Inside the Circus Maximus

The Opera Orchestra of New York revives Rienzi.
Image © 2012 Rienzi Foods. Nothing to do with opera, and not a paid advertisement.
For Wagnerians, the composer's ten "mature" operas are near-sacred texts. They are (generally) not cut (much) or edited in performance. They are never interrupted by applause during an act. And they are revered by critics and fans of German opera alike. 

The same cannot be said of Rienzi, a five-act grand opera written in the style of Giaocomo Meyerbeer and completed in 1840. Wagner's third opera is a huge potboiler. If the score, with its endless processions, choruses and a huge ballet was played uncut, it could run longer than Die Meistersinger. Based on a novel that Wagner devoured,  the story retells and romanticizes the political career of Cola di Rienzo, a "man of the people" who rose to power in 14th century Rome. 

Rienzi is early Wagner, written in a style that imitates Meyerbeer, but with plot and music elements that show up in later gesamtkunstwerks: Lohengrin, Götterdämmerung and even Parsifal. Although the opera has never been played at Wagner's custom-built Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, it took the stage regularly in the first half of the 20th century. Following World War II,  word got out that Rienzi was the favorite opera (and possible political inspiration) of one Adolf Hitler. Now, it's revived maybe once a decade.

Over its long history, the Opera Orchestra of New York, (which specializes in concert presentations of rare operas)  have made something of a tradition of Rienzi. On Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall, former OONY music director Eve Queler led the OONY, two choruses, three offstage bands and a full cast in a three-hour performing version that excised about 40 minutes from Wagner's king-sized score.

The title role is sheer murder. This was the first of Wagner's "super-tenor" parts, with a high, loud tessitura that must cut through trumpets, multiple snare drums and dominate all of Rome with oratorial skill.  British heldentenor Ian Storey sang with pungent tone, delivering the required volume with a steady delivery, but looking uninvolved with the proceedings. Also, he kept leaving the stage during scenes involving his character, making an already shortened, confusing opera even more chaotic for the audience. Some redemption came in the last act, when Mr. Storey put everything into Rienzi's Prayer, the show's biggest hit.

As Rienzi's sister Irene, Elisabete Mateos displayed piercing high notes and ringing metal in her voice. Unlike Mr. Storey, she milked her character for all of its dramatic worth.  She was as fiery as the oranges and yellows of her first gown of the evening, (a blinding affair.)  Her performance, (and her fashion sense) got better as the opera wore on.

The best performance was Geraldine Chauvet as Adriano Collonna, who winds up on the opposite side of the opera's political plot. Ms. Chauvet was thoroughly invested in her character, elevating the proceedings with a sweet tone and high-energy stage presence. This was an agile, attractive instrument in a rare (for Wagner) trouser part, making the most of her dramatic and vocal opportunities. It would be good to see her in a better opera.

Despite some stiff phrases in the opening phrases of the Overture, Eve Queler brought a smooth, sweeping approach to this complicated score. She was in her glory in Act IV, where the audience was assaulted by Berlioz-like squads of offstage trumpets and drums. Video monitors and skilled assistant directors helped make this difficult scene the most exciting part of the show. 

Ms. Queler rode the momentum of this scene into the final act of the opera. She brought noble tone out in the brass for the Prayer, and created a suitably intense crowd scene with help from the New York Choral Society. Mention must be made of the children's choir Vox Nova and an anonymous group of professional singers, a late substitution for the West Point Glee Club. In the final bars, the diminuitive conductor was in her element: bringing the thunderous sound of rare opera to the ears of appreciative New Yorkers.

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