Tuesday, April 13, 2010

POWER TRIP


WAGNER: RIENZI

Oper Leipzig
2 April, 2010

What a deliciously perverse idea!
 
Hitler’s supposedly favorite opera Rienzi presented on Good Friday in Wagner’s hometown! 

That was the inspiration of Oper Leipzig under the artistic direction of Peter Konwitschny, son of fabled, politically controversial, conductor Franz Konwitschny.  If the sparse attendance at this performance was a reliable barometer, maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea after all.  Leipzig’s operagoers seemed more in the mood for an operetta gala playing at the city’s Musical Komödie.  It was sold out to the rafters.  I caught the first half of this delightful potpourri before racing to the main opera house in time for the start of Rienzi

Too bad the attendance for Rienzi was so slim, because this production was musically, at least, excellent.  Admittedly, I’ve never heard a complete, unabridged Rienzi live -- it takes about six hours to perform, not counting intermissions.  At best, the live performances I’ve heard in New York, Berlin, Bremen, and now Leipzig amount to summaries or highlights.  Each version has featured numbers that were excluded from the others. The current Leipzig production took four hours, including two intermissions, just long enough to savor a smorgasbord of ideas that Wagner was cooking up for his future operas. 

Like most well-organized musical buffets, Rienzi offers generous portions of tantalizing tidbits to abate aural hunger, providing you have an appetite for German operatic cuisine.  And that caveat may irk some operagoers:  a lot of Rienzi is just loud.   Beautiful, yes, but loud.  Its principal dramatic theme is the dynamic of political power, and even the loss of influence does not necessarily mean less volume.  Beefy singers in the leading roles must always be able to run the estimable distance from forte to fortissimo without tiring, and make themselves sound interesting.  

The title role in particular. 

In this production, Stefan Vinke delivered the goods in surprisingly interesting fashion.  All the more surprising, because he has bettered himself in every professional respect since I last heard him in Leipzig as Lohengrin.  Back then (2006), he seemed sufficiently competent to essay the Grail Knight, but his stage demeanor was at best tentative.  That, however, was then, and his voice has now emerged fully armed from Euterpe’s larynx: dark, virile and evenly distributed.  It can sustain itself through distended declamation without degenerating into droning.  In rare moments of quietude, his consummate musicality and affinity to this music evince a deeply felt sensitivity that eludes so many heroic tenors.   Undeniably, the voice has accrued some metal, but it has also retained ample honey.  His account of “Almächt'ger Vater, blick herab” received sustained, richly deserved applause.   The jury is still out on his stage demeanor, but the role doesn’t demand much more than ambling about looking important, which Vinke manifestly succeeded in doing.  

Marika Schönberg as Rienzi’s daughter Irene seemed a bit uncertain at the outset, but proved sufficiently reliable once she hit her stride.  Her stage personality is still in the process of defining itself, but she shows optimistic signs of becoming an A-Class opera singer. 

Charika Mavropoulou stepped in as Adriano for the indisposed Elena Zhidkova.  She also shows signs of heading for major-league opera houses, but she is encumbered with excess weight in a trouser-role that demands quite a bit of running around.  That said, she is in full possession of a ballsy mezzo-soprano that induces thrilling frissons at full-throttle. 

Miklos Sebastien as Colonna, Jürgen Kürth as Orsini and Roman Astakhov rounded out the principal roles without fault. 

Thanks to Matthias Foremny’s richly detailed reading and supernal playing from the Gewandhaus Orchestra, I heard details that I never noticed before in this music.  Take, for example, the elegiac postlude to Rienzi’s prayer.  It's long, seemingly rambling and fitfully anticipates the conclusion to Elisabeth’s prayer in Tannhäuser.  But Foremny and the Gewandhaus made it sound unique unto itself.   

I’ve left mentioning Nicolas Joel’s production to last, because it is the least impressive element of this otherwise superior mounting.  Why Rienzi is dressed in an Ancient Roman tunic, while almost everybody else is dressed in Gangsta Moderne, never becomes apparent.  If it was an effort to distinguish the ill-fated Tribune from everyone else in the plot, the ploy succeeded only in exposing Stefan Vinke’s estimable gams.


©Sam H. Shirakawa

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