Grand Opera in Five Acts. Running Time: 4 hours 40 minutes.
Dedicated to my opera-blogosphere friend Nick who is hopefully recuperating from pneumonia and will maybe write his own critique of this psychopathic mega-opera when he feels up to it.
WARNING: I use a lot of vulgarity in this review (the f-, s-, c-, b-, and h- words are all included in this Rocky Horror Picture Show of the opera house).
Yes, I have shamefully turned to the Dark Side, although like Anakan Skywalker I’m not too proud of myself for it. Hopefully some Monteverdi and Rossini later will redeem me. I am rather certain this will be my last Wagner review, period. I have to admit that in spite of the extremism of the score and its disgusting militarism, I am in lust with this opera, not love, very much lust. However, at the same time, expect a lot of one-star items because if Wagner ever needed an editor, it was here. This is basically everything I would want from Wagner and then some: bombast, illogically slow paced scenarios, psychotically loud finales, no leitmotifs, no philosophy, over a dozen numbers, lots of bel canto-ish vocals (even if most of the time it isn’t successful), the fact that the last three acts take up only 2 hours of its mammoth running time while the second act is 100 minutes long and includes a 40 minute ballet that I doubt anyone has ever really danced and if they did, must have died as a result. Incidentally, this is probably the longest single opera (not counting series like Der Ring or Licht; why do Germans inflict so much suffering on the rest of humanity and themselves?) ever written and includes almost every conceivable musical cliche one can ever think of and then a few one should never have thought of. It is the “kitchen sink” of an entire genre of musical theatre and for that I have to be in some sense in awe of it. Is it flawed, yes, fatally, the characters are about as real as those populating a Lully drama as my said friend Nick the opera scribe has noted here: Atys
Irene is one of the weirdest characters in all opera as she has no decernable personality of her own and is totally defined by the men in her life, one of whom is played by a woman in male drag. Wagner tries to make Rienzi noble, and so far as he is a victim rising up for the underdog this works, but as a powerful leader he is a disgusting jerk with Mussolini-style fascist pretensions that ultimately get him and his sister killed.
Rienzi himself was a real historical figure: Cola di Rienzo, however his life and death were not the same as how Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote it up, and thus inspired Wagner to write probably the longest, weirdest, and certainly most bombastic piece of musical theatre ever. Also, although the opera is copyrighted by the BBC, who miserly guard it like its fools gold, the complete, unedited and including stuff that never got premiered before recording of Rienzi conducted by Edward Downes in 1976 is somehow on YouTube, and also apparently available through some grey economy dealers for those so inclined (to both insanity and the grey economy).
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A street in Rome outside Rienzi’s house, around 1354. (64 minutes)
0: The Overture ** starts off on a trumpet note which sounds like the beginning of a concert performance when the instrumentalists are tuning up. Low ground basses, another trumpet note and the high woodwinds grace us followed by another trumpet note and more low ground bass and we end up face to face with the opera’s only great tune: Rienzi’s prayer. This is followed by agitation, darkness, and then a stronger reintegration of the Rienzi prayer. It literally takes 5 whole minutes just to warm up to this point. Also a flaw of this recording is that the strings are too far away and the brass is much too close to the microphone so we miss out on the drowned strings. More trumpet notes, then magnificent military music, emphasis on the brass, followed by a more laid back rendering of the RP theme. One starts to realize that the entire overture is meant to just showcase this one tune, or at least one would think if not for the next one full of bells with strings scurrying about before it bangs itself out (it returns as the act 2 finale and at the end of the overture). This is already ten minutes into the overture but it doesn’t feel quite that long. More trumpet note and finally a return of the one melody that isn’t that amazing and then a return of the military march theme. This is the first point where the score goes insane with military march, brass, crescendos abound. It clocks in at thirteen and a half minutes.
13: So the first thing that actually happens in the opera proper (I just wrote 258 words about the overture) is an attempted kidnapping *: oh what fun! The most interesting thing about this is the very Northern European sounding male chorus of kidnappers hired by Orsini as Irene basically screams multiple times. The Colonnas (father Stefano and son Adriano) put a stop to the attempt in a large scale street brawl. The chorus is worked up into a whirlwind before the arrival of Rienzi which is kicked off by a key change from D to E-flat. Much of this is very long recitative unfortunately. The chorus exclaims “Rienzi!” a lot because they want him to be their proto-Mussolini.
20: A jovial chorus for the Roman people *.
24: Rienzi’s first address to the people *. The chorus takes up the tune. The introduction concludes with a drum roll and an obvious number ending chord.
29: Rienzi charges Irene to Adriano in a trio *. Almost everything the is of interest here consists of Rienzi’s vocal line. But it eventually gets dark and somewhat ornery.
37: The trio proper * is a jovial, almost Mozartean tune.
43: A tune pops up which turns into a duet for Adriano and Irene *. It has some slight similarities to the Spinning Chorus in The Flying Dutchman. This is broken up rather quickly by some offstage trumpet voluntary. There is a reprise of the duet in a furious brief before the next number. The trumpet note appears again.
49: The chorus blasts force 9 gales at us as they offer Rienzi the crown of Rome *. Organ music coming from a church near by.
57: The second outing for the chorus after Rienzi addresses them.
62: After more addressing from Rienzi we get a third chorus *. The sopranos go up, everyone gets high and then a long series of battery chords ends the act.
ACT 2: The Capitol Hall. (96 minutes)
0, 3: The act opens on an oddly familiar and gorgeous prelude ** which eventually descends in the orchestra and we have a very soft and delicate chorus (female) of peace ambassadors **. Six minutes into this we end up in a new patch of recitative followed by the peace envoys (lead by a coloratura soprano) bringing homage to Rienzi, upon whose vocal line the melody from the top of the act chooses to rest. This is really nice.
21: The conspiracy scene is very, very, dull. Adriano gets involved which only slightly improves the situation *.
26: Adriano goes through multiple stages of denial in a very brief period of time *.
27: A weird little march and chorus * as the ambassadors arrive and are greeted by Rienzi. It sparkles. What goes on for the next ten minutes consists of a series of choruses and patches of arioso for Rienzi before the long ballet begins, all fine and involving some nice declarations from Rienzi. Adriano warns Rienzi of the plot against him.
37: The ballet is excruciatingly long (40 solid minutes) and none of it is particularly interesting, and some of the stuff in the middle seems to be rehashing elements from earlier in the opera, or later in the opera (a trumpet call is referenced in the act 3 finale). It depicts the “Rape of Lucrezia” which is symbolic as it relates to both the failed abduction of Irene in act one as well as the annihilation of the Etruscan royal family who ruled Rome (symbolizing the latter-day Roman nobles). Much of it is very militaristic or ornery, it is hard to believe anyone would dance to this except maybe a gladiator. It comes off more as symphony than ballet music. I think I remember this massive piece of music being used as background music in cinemas as the audience was taking their seats (I used to get to the movies 40-minutes ahead of time and tickets were only $6 back then).
77: The attempted assassination * (literally the mid-point of the opera) is ended by Rienzi’s surprise wardrobe choice, a dagger-proof vest apparently. Around three minutes into this there is some slight light from the orchestra but it doesn’t last long. The people want blood. Much of this is really ornery until Adriano pleads to have his father spared death. Somehow this takes six solid minutes, why I do not know.
84: A whirlwind ensemble * as Adriano and Irene plead for mercy on the nobles. The chorus really doesn’t want this, but he ultimately decides to be magnanimous.
88: Rienzi’s declaration of mercy ** is oddly lovely and turns into a rather bel canto ensemble with a delicate final crescendo. Probably the best non-bombastic part of the entire opera not counting Rienzi’s prayer.
93: The act ends with the second loudest finale ever, the third act has the loudest. It is based on the march tune which rounded out the overture ** and starts off with Adriano and Irene on a descant. The gallop is almost irresistible in its sheer madness.
ACT 3: A square near the forum. (58 minutes)
5: Congratulations, you have gotten through well over half the opera! A brassy opening. Church bells, the nobles have declared war on Rome and have an army on their way. The people beg Rienzi to save them. Rienzi’s prayer to the Holy Ghost * is surrounded by fanfares, bombast, choral cries. It is all very loud but really not that interesting in substance.
10: Adriano comes on in a panic. To fight or not to fight, and for whom? He is torn between his father’s treason and his love for Irene. Ultimately love wins, sort of, he decides to be neutral. The aria is rather cute though *.
15: The bells! The Bells! The BELLS! Adriano makes his (in)decision and runs off *.
17: So the battle trumpets can be heard in the distance and Rienzi rides in before the battle. This goes on for a VERY LONG TIME and although if heard once or twice it wouldn’t be bad at all, Wagner, true to form, bombards us with the same shrill military tune constantly until we want the mercy of death. The final is unbelievably bombastic.
27: Yes, it took NINE MINUTES, but Rienzi is ready for battle against the nobles and this time there will be NO MERCY for them (nor for us). He comes on horseback, but Adriano tries to stop him by catching the bridal of the horse and begs BIG R for mercy one last time. Nothing doing, they die, says Rienzi. This occurs just after an army chorus that literally has to be heard to be believed as it is so obviously the soundtrack for the Nurnberg Rallies. Also, it gets repeated, what fun, not.
32: So we are over a half and hour into the act and rather little has actually happened. Admittedly this could be said of the opera in total. Rienzi leaves with his army of Proto-Nazis and Irene comes on because, why not? Adriano has been left to protect Irene (who engages in some vocal explosions *) from the slim chance that Rienzi might lose and the nobles will come after her because why not?
35: Then, the most amazing female chorus ** comes on and tells us what is happening in the battle as Rienzi literally decapitates all the nobles. This is totally different from anything else Wagner has written so far, it is something totally different in its dramatic quality. Unfortunately what follows as Rienzi returns is more of that proto-fascist chorus.
39: We get a foretaste of the third act finale * which will be totally better than this, don’t worry.
40: The first instance in the opera where we get a reference to Rienzi’s prayer * comes on in the French Horns as Rienzi makes his address and reveals all the death noblemen bodies that he has carried back with him from the battle (Stefano Colonna included). There is a wee bit of chromaticism and then a fade out as Adriano literally goes ape-sh*t over the fact that Rienzi just killed his dad.
45: Another Rienzi led ensemble ** this time sad. Rienzi is triumphant, but Adriano is very low because of the whole dad being dead thing. Irene is just, frankly, Irene, an empty glittering husk that sings prettily. The chorus is forlorn for the first time.
53: Then, suddenly, we are attacked by the most caffeinated act finale in all opera **. Literally everything musically possible seems to happen in this including a lot of music I think either other composers wrote earlier or would write in the decades that followed. It seems like this is somehow rather pleasurable to sing, possibly because it is basically the closest thing in opera to the Apocalypse other than maybe the end of Gotterdammerung.
ACT 4: A Square in Rome, a church near by, night. (27.5 minutes)
0: The acts starts very quietly and brooding *. Everything has changed, the people no longer love Rienzi, in fact they are plotting to get rid of him and the Church is planning on excommunicating him. It turns almost, almost, into Mickey-Mousing.
6: More conspiracy to assassinate Rienzi, Adriano joins in this time. Very, very sad Adriano decides that he will assassinate Rienzi at the altar of the church because the rest of them are cowards, this becomes a half-way interesting ensemble *.
12: The processional to the church *, I believe is originally from the overture in trace form. Rienzi and Irene come on along with a huge crowd of supporters given how long the interlude is.
19: A weird sweet aria for Rienzi *.
22: The chanting of monks and the excommunication of Rienzi * (a repeat of the former closes the act). More happy processional from the orchestra, then ornery chorus of excommunication, everyone flees Rienzi except Irene and Adriano, the latter begging the woman he loves to leave her brother, she refuses (this is literally the only thing she independently does in the entire opera and it is frankly weird). After Rienzi’s shocked reaction, the return of the chorus of monks, the act ends on a single loud chord.
ACT 5 (34.5 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the capitol.
0: The act begins with what is probably the best number in the opera: Rienzi’s prayer ***. It starts off with a long prelude of three and a half solid minutes without any vocalization at all. In many ways this is oddly similar to later Wagnerian patches of narrative arioso but it is still a traditional set piece and so also much better.
19: Irene arrives and tells her brother that she totally believes in bros before hoes and so has ended her engagement to Adriano (who in this situation is the hoe but whatever). Rienzi, who has always acted more like Irene’s creepy brother who probably has an actively incesteous relationship with her, tells her that his own bride (Rome) has betrayed him and that she too must reject her sexuality in order to become the bride of Rome so they can consecrate themselves to Rome. Irene can either be a woman or a Roman, she readily chooses the latter because she is as psychotic as he is (genetics are a b*tch aren’t they?). Their long duet * is very, very weird, but tuneful, although it takes a while to really take off and fly, especially Irene’s vocal line will all its trills and coloratura (she literally does more here than anywhere else in the opera). It is also strange how this brother-sister duet is the sexiest thing in the entire opera.
23: Adriano comes on and pleads with Irene to flee with him. The capitol is about to be burned down by the enraged anti-Rienzi population and he will be killed. Negative says Irene, better you die with me. The ensuing duet is rather boring. Irene storms off and Adriano decides eventually to chase after her.
Scene 2: Outside the Capitol, it is ablaze.
29: The finale scene is all of five and a half minutes and a bit of a musical disaster consisting mostly of choral shouts of “Death to Rienzi” and the like. The brass goes overboard, manic, even a bit substance abusively violent. Rienzi tries to make a speech but is stoned to death by the people. In the final minute Irene runs after Rienzi into the burning Capitol, Adriano chases after Irene, the capitol collapses, killing all three of them. The ending is a sudden death total disaster, both musically because Wagner appears to have run out of steam finally and doesn’t have a clue how to end this thing (wooly mammoths were brought down by Homo sapiens more quickly) and for all three of our characters because they are no more (dramatic pose). Thank heaven for small favours.
Wagner was a great composer of symphonies, in spite of the Symphony in C, but when it came to the theatre, he had ambitions seriously above and beyond his ability. I propose the theory here that what Wagner was trying to do to opera was to combine stage drama with the symphonic orchestra. Grand opera, being the highest of theatrical art forms, was tested in Rienzi as a satisfactory form in which Wagner could work within, and the result was a public triumph but an artistic abortion, or is it an abomination? Although Rienzi has a coherent plot (well, series of episodic spectacular events is more like it) it unfolds slower than a glacier, and each act is basically a new episode in the Rienzi Cycle (yes I went there). There is no purpose at all to the second act other than to make the opera extremely long (it would otherwise be a much more reasonable three hours). All five of the acts are episodic and other than the allusions in the ballet reflecting the past (kidnapping of Irene) and future (execution of the nobles) there is no connection dramatically in any of them other than that the people worship Rienzi until act 4 and hate him afterwards. Oh, and that Adriano loves Irene. The music, although sometimes amazingly bombastic at the best of times, is generally very ornery, although Rienzi’s act 5 prayer is hands down a winner. Like Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge who is Rienzi? What is he? In truth, two operas smashed together into one gigantic mess that isn’t really an opera, or at least it defies all traditional genres of opera. One of the operas is over two and a half hours long and consists of some rather traditional sounding numbers and a grossly overwrought symphony masquerading as a ballet. The second is less than two hours long and starts off somewhat traditionally (Adriano’s aria) but rapidly turns into something else (the depiction of the battle utilizing the female chorus). The acts weirdly gets shorter. For some reason Wagner thought it wise to make the first act 64 minutes, the second 96, the third 58, but the fourth and fifth combined just 62 minutes. Why this sudden sense of brevity and economy? And also why do these last two acts contain music that is much closer to mature Wagner than the first three acts which are obviously a monstrous attempt at trying to out-do Grand Opera? Surprisingly the third act moves more quickly than any of the others, however all the acts are slow because almost nothing happens in any of them. The question will forever remain: Is Rienzi just a bad opera that if cut massively would actually be a good opera or is it in fact even an opera? Much of the music wouldn’t really indicate that this is an opera, it sounds somewhat more like an oratorio. Rienzi ultimately can’t truly be called a grand opera, it is frankly too super-sized. Like Tod Browning’s Freaks, it belongs to a sub-genre all on its own and thank heaven no one (including Wagner) ever attempted at repeating it (although Die Sarazenin, a libretto Wagner wrote shortly after completing Rienzi but which he ultimately discarded in favour of Tannhauser, might well have been a repeat). Also, if we ever needed an answer to the question: Was Wagner actually able to write a traditional opera? this answers it with a definitive ‘NO’. Not only is the music too much in the realm of oratorio (even if bombastic) and rather stilted even at the best of times (oddly resembling a stage play in many ways), the characters themselves are wooden figures. Irene has no discernible personality, Rienzi is a sociopath proto-Hitler, Adriano is a queer relic of poorly imitated Rossini. These are our main characters, and yet the oeuvre in which they dwell is, if you squint hard enough, the prototype of the Wagnerian music drama, it is just encased in the shell of Spontini-esque (NOT MEYERBEERIAN!) grand opera and even at times opera seria. Strangely enough, if Verdi had written this instead of Wagner, it would probably be a rather great opera. The story in itself is not half-bad and Verdi would not have overinflated the poor thing into an ideological experiment to prove why he (Wagner) knew more about the theatre than anyone else. At the vary least we would have gotten a tenor Adriano and more love interest out of Irene, so maybe also less bombast? It is an extremely weak B-, and it would be a solid gamma with a single great tune without the extreme nature of the third act finale.