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Rienzi: Sage An, Hast Deine Sendung Du Vollbracht?

By Singingscholar @singingscholar

Rienzi: Sage an, hast deine Sendung du vollbracht?

Opera Orchestra of New York: Chauvet, Matos, Storey (c) AP Photo

Wagner's 1842 opera Rienzi is a heady cocktail of medieval history and political idealism, shaken together in grand operatic fashion (libretto here.) Hardly a curiosity from a noted composer's juvenilia, Rienzi was among Wagner's most popular operas during his own lifetime. Music historian Carl Wilhelm Bauck, writing in the 1860s, characterized Rienzi as possessing "an unusual power, a living spirit, [and] a design of massive, even at times imposing dimensions, and that this all springs from an imagination that surrounds all that enters its purview with burning colors." Another early review praised its "energy of feeling and warmth of imagination." That it is rarely performed, and still more rarely staged, may be partly due to the demands of this form: elaborate processions--and a cast of dimensions to make Cecil B. DeMille proud--do not come cheap. There is also the question of how to piece the opera together; the original manuscript has been "lost, presumed destroyed" since the Second World War, so some cuts are inevitable and, given its massive length (over 8000 bars) further editing is a commonplace. The three-hour version given by the Opera Orchestra of New York (slightly shorter than the EMI recording) was missing some ambassadors and a ballet, but the former are easily omitted from the elaborate plot, and the latter perhaps a prudent excision from this concert performance. (I didn't notice specifics of other cuts; Zerbinetta's report on Likely Impossibilities will almost certainly have a more detailed and thoughtful consideration of these issues.) What of the work itself? Like the early critics cited above, I was drawn in by its musical and dramatic vividness. Many of Wagner's characteristically rich harmonies are present, as are his concerns with the individual's relationship to social institutions. But all of this inhabits, in structural and stylistic terms, the world of grand opera--most decidedly, the world of Meyerbeer--rather than the late nineteenth-century orchestral landscape which Wagner himself did so much to create.
Eve Queler led the orchestral forces with manifest enthusiasm and very welcome energy. The results were better coordinated than I have observed at other OONY performances, although there remained some issues, notably with the strings. The positioning of brass and percussion at the sides and rear of the hall for the military processions, however, was carried off well, and to rousing effect. The New York Choral Society, led by John Daly Goodwin from the side of the stage, seemed underrehearsed, and could have been given lessons in diction by the children's chorus of Vox Nova, who sang the chorus of the messengers of peace. The numerous small roles of the opera--primarily churchmen and politicians--were competently filled. Baritone Ricardo Rivera, as the scheming Orsini, had a pleasing timbre; I was also impressed by Brandon Cedel as the cardinal, and the bright tenor of Jonathan Winell in the role of Baroncelli. Emily Duncan-Brown, as the Messenger of Peace, displayed a bright but not boring soprano, and shaped her phrases nicely. (Wardrobe Committee consensus was that her sequined, champagne-colored sheath suited her figure and the role.)
Of the central trio of roles, I thought the strongest performance belonged to mezzo Geraldine Chauvet, in the role of Adriano, lover of Rienzi's sister, and the political ally/rival/conscience of the tribune himself. Dashing in a three-piece suit, she gave an impassioned vocal and dramatic performance. Her rich-hued mezzo was wielded with confidence and agility, and her German was beautifully enunciated. The role is excitingly written (for Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, originally) and Chauvet communicated the decision and indecision of the passionate young nobleman with thrilling conviction, and impressive control and brilliance of sound throughout her range. Her aria, "Gerechter Gott!" (almost a mini-scena, reminiscent in some ways of "Abscheulicher!") elicited rapturous applause; the libretto-toting man in front of me was fairly bouncing with excitement. Personally, I hope that Chauvet may join the impressive ranks of the singers for whom OONY has opened doors to further opportunities.
This is my second time hearing Elisabete Matos, and I still don't quite know what to make of her. For one thing, she was wearing gowns that harked back to the diva fashions of the 1980s. More seriously, though, my response to her voice remains mixed. She has a steely, focused top which can be extremely exciting; she commands a sheer volume of sound which demands respect, if not love; and she has both an impressive range and a fierce attack. However, in Sunday's performance as Irene, there was little dynamic variance, or nuance given to text or phrasing, and Matos' sound not infrequently turned harsh. Certainly, though, for the grand operatic repertoire, the possession of such a powerful instrument is a not insignificant asset. This was my first time hearing tenor Ian Storey live, and he struck me, as he has on recordings, as being a very intelligent performer; he was sensitive to the text and to the arc of Rienzi's character. I wish I could say I were as satisfied with his vocal performance; especially at the outset, he suffered from a slight wobble, and seemed strained throughout much of the performance. That said, he did handle "Allmächtiger Vater," the challenging Act V aria, very elegantly, if not effortlessly. On the whole, the performance was stirring and engaging; a welcome opportunity to hear Wagner's sensibilities applied to grand opera instead of Gesamtkunstwerk.

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