For Bostonians, getting to hear a live performance of Wagner’s ambitious third opera, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (“Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes”) was surely a once in a lifetime experience, which is what Odyssey Opera, Boston’s newest opera company, must surely have been counting on. Too bad that even in Wagner’s bicentennial year, and for the landmark inauguration of a new company, only some 600 of Jordan Hall’s 1013 seats were filled (the top ticket price was $200) for Rienzi’s Boston premiere, in a complete concert version. But those present certainly got their money’s worth (and probably so did the local restaurants, which filled up during the two-hour dinner break in between the two parts of the five-hour opera).
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.
For the fourth time now, Eve Queler, Conducter Laureate of the Opera Orchestra of New York, will bring Richard Wagner's third opera, Rienzi, to life. That is the only word for it, because her 1980, 1982, and 1992 performances of the rarely-performed opera were terrific hits among critics and audiences. Curiously for concert performances they had the impact of great spectacles, with choirs marching through the aisles and trumpets spread about the hall. Although, as always, Ms. Queler's focus was always on the music, she captured some of the spectacle of the first performances.