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'Rienzi' at Strathmore

available at Amazon
Wagner, Rienzi, R. Kollo, S. Wennberg, Staatskapelle Dresden, H. Hollreiser
(Warner Classics)
Wagner's Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen, Hans von Bülow reportedly quipped, is Meyerbeer's best opera. Wagner completed it, his third opera, when he was still in his late 20s, before he disavowed his one-time admiration of French grand opera. Meyerbeer, who was so instrumental in getting the young Wagner's early operas to the stage, ended up with Wagner's scorn as thanks, when Wagner targeted Meyerbeer in his anti-Semitic tract Das Judenthum in der Musik. Wanting to bury that part of his development as a composer, Wagner banned Rienzi from performance at Bayreuth. Kudos to the National Philharmonic and conductor Piotr Gajewski for bringing an all too rare concert performance of the work to the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday evening. Sadly, ambition in programming, as happens all too often, was rewarded with a small audience, but a loudly appreciative one.

The title character was a Roman politician, risen from humble beginnings to become the city's tribune in the mid-14th century. Rienzi tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the hazardous terrain between the papacy, then removed to Avignon, and the Holy Roman Emperor. Although lifted up for a time by the admiration of everyday Romans, Rienzi runs afoul of the Colonnas and other powerful aristocratic families and ends his days, in the opera, burned alive in a fire set by a mob on the Capitoline Hill. The story of the rise to power of a common man on the shoulders of the populace was a favorite of Adolf Hitler's, for obvious reasons, and the leader of the Nazi party came to own Wagner's manuscript of the opera, still in his possession when he died and so now lost.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, ‘Rienzi,’ a Wagner work rarely performed, pleases at Strathmore (Washington Post, October 5)

David Rohde, The National Philharmonic’s ‘Rienzi, A Concert Opera’ at Strathmore (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, October 5)

Alex Baker, Rienzi with the National Philharmonic (Wellsung, October 6)
Mercifully, this performance featured a heavily cut version of the opera, excising far more music than just the half-hour ballet in the second act. Tenor Issachah Savage, whom we have been following since his student days at Catholic University, gave a heroic rendition of the title role, with enough power and beauty at the top of his voice to carry the evening, especially in the moving Act V prayer scene. Mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Stewart was equally strong as Adriano, Colonna's son (en travesti), beautifully matched with the more slender sound of Eudora Brown as Irene, Rienzi's sister and beloved of Adriano. Kevin Thompson, with a vast and brutish tone, and Jason Stearns made a potent pair of villains as Colonna and Orsini, respectively. Things were not always optimal, starting from the somewhat raspy trumpet solos in the overture and continuing with some hesitant entrances in the orchestra and especially the chorus. Gajewski not only held the whole thing together but found many moments in this over-packed score worth discovering.

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