Wagner’s Rienzi with the Opera Orchestra of New York under Eve Queler – a Review
Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 2 pm
Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
Music by Richard Wagner
Libretto by Richard Wagner and based on the novel of the same name by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Cola Rienzi – Ian Storey
Irene – Elisabete Matos
Adriano – Géraldine Chauvet
Stefano Colonna – Philip Horst
Raimondo – Brandon Cedel
Baroncelli – Jonathan Winell
Paolo Orsini – Ricardo Rivera
Cecco Del Vecchio – Shannon DeVine
Messenger of Peace – Emily Duncan-Brown
The Opera Orchestra of New York
Eve Queler, conductor
The New York Choral Society
John Daly Goodwin, Music director
Vox Nova of the Special Music School
Emily John, director
[The West Point Cadet Glee Club
Constance Chase, Director
Italo Marchini, Stage Banda Conductor
Douglas Martin, off-stage conductor]
Withdrawn from the performance due to a recent military ruling and replaced by individually contracted singers.
(See also Michael Miller’s interview with Eve Queler about Rienzi.)
Rienzi was totally new to me, although Eve Queler’s interview on New York Arts gave me some idea of what to expect. Still I was really surprised to hear music that seemed to come straight out of Bellini and reminded me even of some Verdi at times. This is most definitely not the Wagner we know from Tristan and Parsifal, and Wagner most certainly didn’t want us to know him by it. Although Rienzi was a great success at its premiere, made him famous, and continued to be popular through his lifetime and beyond, he repudiated the opera, once he hit his stride in Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin, and supported performances only as far back as the Holländer, his next work, which he actually began before he finished Rienzi. He worked on Rienzi from the summer of 1837 to through October 1840. During this time he took up a post at the opera house in Riga, where he stayed until he was dismissed in 1839. He had to leave the country in secret to escape his creditors, setting out for Paris, where he struggled to survive, as he tried unsuccessfully to interest the Paris Opera in Rienzi. He conceived it as a French grand opera for that reason. With its big choruses, ballets, and processions, the opera lasted over six hours at its premiere, which took place in Dresden. Nobody seemed to mind its length except the management of the opera house, and they set Wagner to cutting the monster down to a manageable length. There was a two-evening version, as well as a single-evening version drastically cut by Wagner himself. We’ll never know exactly what that first-night version was like, since the original working score was destroyed in the bombing of Dresden in the Second World War and the original manuscript, which was a treasured possession of Adolf Hitler, disappeared with him in the fall of Berlin. Eve Queler’s version, which is based on the edition published by Adolf Fürstner in 1910, is about three and a half hours long. Although it’s occasionally staged in Germany, Rienzi is a great rarity, even in concert performance, and it’s wonderful that Eve Queler has kept it alive as she has. This is her fourth performance of the opera since she took it up in 1980. Knowing Rienzi only from this performance, I found it very enjoyable, and I’ve love to see it again, especially on stage. My only criticism would be that its grand, bravura gestures became a bit relentless as the opera ran its course.
Above all, it’s a very interesting story, which Wagner adapted from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s popular novel, Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes (1835). We are in mid-14th century Rome, where the nobles have all the money and power. Rienzi enters the scene when a member of the Orsini family attempts to abduct his sister, Irene. The Colonna clan, however, led by young Adriano Colonna, who loves her, try to stop them. Rienzi, although a commoner, takes control of the situation and saves her. The people urge Rienzi to take power and bring peace to the city. This he tries to do, until the people turn against him—for no reason we can fathom—and try to kill him by stoning. Rienzi, Irene, and Adriano are all crushed when Rienzi’s house collapses in the struggle. Of course there is much more, even in this cut version, in which Ms. Queler tries to preserve both the story line and the harmonic structure of the opera. It is a strong, interesting libretto. My friend who accompanied me, a fellow singer, was puzzled by the sudden, inexplicable change in the people’s attitude towards Rienzi. I rather think that’s just human nature. After all, the Americans chose a President a few years ago, and five months later they wanted to get rid of him and get another President.
The story line brings me to one of the problems with OONY’s production, the program book, which was scanty. There was no synopsis of the opera, and, even if there are supertitles there should be a synopsis. Often, if an opera is cut, even intelligently, as this one was, it is hard to follow the basic story from the titles. In a concert version, it can be hard to follow the characters, and photos of the singers can help with that. In this one there were only a few of the principle singers, but it’s in the secondary characters, some of their parts being quite short, that we need the most help. This is largely a matter of money, of course. Whatever shortcomings there were in this mostly excellent performance seemed to come from the lack of it, and I can’t stress that enough, since it’s a problem we all face, especially in these lean times. There is never enough time for rehearsal; there is never enough time for singers, who may have travelled a great distance, to rest; and economies can lead to other unsatisfactory compromises. In this performance the lack of rehearsal was apparent, although the orchestra sounded very good. The New York Choral Society, which I believe is an amateur group, proved to be the Achilles Heel of this project. They didn’t seem to know their parts, their entrances were often late, and they were very rough in ensemble. Although Ms. Queler’s beat seemed oddly to drag a bit, she did a fine job of keeping everyone else together and at a stirring dramatic pitch. The moral of the story is, that if you love a particular opera company or other performing group, give as generously as you can!
There were two other choruses, however, a children’s chorus, Vox Nova of the Special Music School (Emily John, director) and the West Point Cadet Glee Club (Constance Chase, Director). Both of these were excellent. Vox Nova, in fact, were simply amazing. The children were right on pitch and sang very beautifully. These choruses entered the auditorium from behind, the cadets dressed in black and the children, as angels, in white. They took their places on the floor in front of the orchestra, which must have been a bit scary for the children. It certainly didn’t affect their magnificent singing. There were also brass groups at the back of the hall and on either side of the balcony, which certainly added to the acoustic effect. This sort of “spectacle” made the event exceptionally entertaining for a concert performance, and helped convey some of the effect of this French grand opera in an opera house.
The singers, on the whole, were excellent, including some fine young local singers who took the secondary roles. Ricardo Rivera, baritone (Paolo Orsini) fit his role perfectly and sang solidly. His voice is not enormous, but it was strong, and he did very well. Philip Horst (Steffano Colonna) had a less striking voice, but he also fit his part and sang very solidly. Brandon Cedel (Raimondo), who is still a student at the Curtis School of Music, was a real presence on stage, and his exceptionally beautiful bass showed great promise, although it is still not quite fully formed. One should look out for him in the future. Best of all were a couple of young men who always appeared “on stage” together, Jonathan Winell, tenor, as Baroncelli and Shannon deVine, baritone, as Cecco del Vecchio. They really sang very well and projected beautifully. I found their work quite amazing and will look out for them in the future. It’s really gratifying to see a new generation of singers come along, who are so musical, so well trained, and who just sing so beautifully. All the people who say that all the real singers are gone are totally wrong.
Another striking small role was the Messenger of Peace, sung by Emily Duncan-Brown, who was absolutely delightful. She sang from memory, and in her short aria created a lot of excitement.
Among the principal singers, I have to say that Ian Storey in the title role was, after the New York Choral Society, the biggest disappointment in the performance. All the other singers attempted to sing in character, but he didn’t bother to act in any way. He just kept his nose in the score the whole time, and he was actually boring. Of course Ms. Queler pointed out in her interview that Rienzi is something of a two-dimensional character, always very noble and very true to his mission, but if Storey had brought even a bit more artistry into his singing, it wouldn’t have been so dull. He has a beautiful voice, although it’s uneven. His top register is quite distinct from his middle register, and he seems to have more freedom on the top. There was something unstable in his singing. I haven’t studied the score of Rienzi, so I can’t really say how hard the part actually is. This may have been the cause of whatever vocal difficulties he may have shown. He could have overcome this in his performance, if he were at all artistic in his singing.
Elisabete Matos, who sang Irene, is a big Wagnerian soprano. It was interesting to hear that kind of voice to sing this particular part, because it requires a lot of agility as well. She really did a great job. She was a little shaky at first, but her voice warmed up very nicely. In her duets with Storey, she seemed to be adversely affected by him. Together, their singing was more effortful than expressive. They seemed bent on showing the audience just how hard the music was to sing. My companion, I should add, was not as favorably impressed by Ms. Matos as I was.
Géraldine Chauvet, mezzo-soprano, who sang the trouser role of Adriano, was definitely the star of the show. A great actress as well as a singer, she was incredibly entertaining and engaging. Her voice is a bit on a light side for the piece. It would be interesting to hear her when the orchestra is in the pit, in which case the balance should be just right. Still, Ms. Queler did a fine job of keeping the orchestra in proportion. Adriano’s very demanding aria, “Gerechter Gott! So ist’s entschieden schon!” was stunningly done. Her sincere and properly theatrical portrayal as Adriano earned the warmest applause from the audience.
Eve Queler has done Wagnerians and New York audiences in general a brave service in bringing Wagner’s interesting and quite enjoyable early opera back to the concert hall. The main chorus and the principal tenor were serious drawbacks, but the whole made its point. I hope to see Rienzi one day in a well-designed stage production that tells the story clearly and puts consistently first-rate forces on the stage.