Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Wagner alla Romana

Sam Shirakawa will be in Europe for the next few months, reporting to us periodically on what he sees and hears.

Bremen 2 May 2009
video clips

You may know that Richard Wagner's breakout work was Rienzi, his third opera. It was supposed to have its premiere in 1840 in Paris, but Wagner had to get out of town because of his political activities. The first performance finally took place in Dresden in 1842. Despite its six-hour-plus duration (long even for Wagner), it was perhaps the composer's most frequently performed work during his lifetime. It's often said, that this opera is rarely produced these days, but that's not really the case. A partial list: The English National Opera staged it in 1983, the Komische Oper Berlin mounted it in 1992 and revived it in 1999, the Vienna State Opera put it up for Siegfried Jerusalem in 1998, Oper Leipzig produced it last year, and the Opera Orchestra of New York has presented it twice in concert form.

Wagner himself, of course, eventually found his breakout work to be an embarassment, and his heirs have yet to permit a production of it at Bayreuth--though certain family members have been agitating for mounting ALL of the composer's stage oeuvre at the composer's shrine.

One of those activist clan members is Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the Master and youngest child of Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson and recently retired Lord of the Sanctum Sanctorum. She, along with her half-sister Eva, is now co-director of the annual Festival at Bayreuth. This year she directed a production of it in Bremen, so I trekked all the way to this lovely Hanseatic city to attend its 13th and final performance this season.

The fascistic themes of the plot, based on a book by the 19th century English nobleman, writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton, may have emboldened Katharina to revisit those very leitmotifs that her family has sought assiduously to avoid since the end of World War II. The story revolves around Cola di Rienzi, a medieval Italian politician, who defeats a grim coterie of nobles in behalf of the populace. But the power Rienzi accrues goes to his head, and he ultimately is crushed by his erstwhile supporters.

In a simple stroke of theatrical brilliance, Katharina uses wigs to show how the trappings of power and the futility of vanity are inextricably related in the hero's ascent. Katharina's Rienzi is bald, but donning facsimiles of hair invigorates his political potency: the trendier the wig, the greater his power. She also arms Rienzi with a flame-throwing device that becomes a one-man instrument of annihilation. Katharina's designer Tilo Steffans places a huge faux-alabaster statue of a female deity on a stage-length set of steps. The statue ultimately devolves into a prurient cartoon poster, as the decadence that Rienzi causes turns the Glory that was Rome into a lascivious caricature of itself.

While Katharina's basic take on her great-grandfather's nascent work frequently provokes even as it amuses, it's hard to make out where she is leading us. Yes, power corrupts and ultimately destroys itself. But so what? Rienzi doesn't lose all his hair as he loses power. And yes, I am also aware of the commonplace wisdom that tells us that powerful friends can turn into deadly enemies. (A certain recently elected world leader is learning that sad fact.) Perhaps the point lies in those immoveable steps, spanning the stage. They remain unchanged through bloodbaths and debauchery- They also lead nowhere...

What strikes me as most fascinating about the work as a whole, though, is that Wagner is forced to articulate in a musical language that is not his own. You hear bits and chunks of Tannhäuser and Dutchman straining to burst out, but hardly a trace of Tristan, not to mention Parisfal. Wagner at this stage of his career must still speak through the tub-thumping, rum-ti-tum conventions of early 19th century Italian opera and the inflated gestures that animated Parisian Grand Opera of his time. To experience the eventual revolutionary composer of the Ring "putting out" for paltry approval is both unnverving and, at times, utterly delectable.

No less delectable in this production, which was performed with about half an hour worth of cuts -- not including the 40-minute ballet -- is the singing. Hats off to American heldentenor Mark Duffin in the killer title role. His big, beefy timbre never tires, as it bulldozes its way through page after page of stentorian declamation. While Duffin's tenor runs the risk of turning coarse if he sings like this too often, his musicality prevents it in this instance from taxing the ear.

As Rienzi's sister Irene, Duffin's fellow American Patricia Andress soared effortlessly above the staff, as her role evolved act by act into what might be described as Senta's step-sister. If Andress' professional ambitions are leaning toward Wagner, she already has at least one listener looking forward to her Brühnnhilde.

Why Wagner conceived of Irene's lover Adriano as a trouser-role remains a mystery for me, even though he tailored it for his favorite Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who created the role. But if singers like Tamara Klivadenko are assigned to it, I have no regrets. It's hard to say in which direction Klivadenko is leaning, but her bright and warm Adriano left me with the impression that her options are wide open.
The English National Opera staged it in 1983, the Komische Oper Berlin mounted it

Other standouts in the cast were Pavel Kudinov as Steffano Colonna, Loren Lang as Paolo Orsini and Franz Becker-Urban as Kardinal Raimondo.

Daniel Montané leading the Bremen Philharmonic and the Theater Bremen Chorus brought focus and clarity to a score that seems at times to ramble. Speaking of the orchestra, it never fails to astonish me how much superior the brass and woodwinds sound among so-called provincial pit orchestras in comparison to some of their counterparts in so-called "major" opera houses.

© Sam Shirakawa

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