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Music Pages

Wagner’s Rienzi opens Riga 2014 European Capital of Culture

30 January 2014, Riga, Latvia

Opus in images: Wagner's 'Rienzi' at Latvian National Opera
Opus in images: Wagner's 'Rienzi' at Latvian National Opera(Photo: Kaspars Garda)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Wagner composed the overture and first two acts of Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes in Riga, before fleeing to Paris. That connection was the reason the opera, in an abbreviated version, was chosen to open Riga 2014, European Capital of Culture.
Rienzi, based on the real-life Italian Cola di Rienzi, deals with power, revenge, class struggle, and star-crossed lovers – universal and timeless themes. It follows Rienzi’s rise to power as a populist leader against the nobility’s tyranny until he became a tyrant himself, and falls from power as the people and Church turned against him.

This production of Rienzi, condensed to two hours and two acts (from six hours and five acts), was renamed Rienzi, Rise and Fall. The Rape of Lucretia ballet was replaced by a classic snippet from Bayadère, performed to Voldemārs Jansons’ electronic music, and the opera opened with a boys chorus singing (Wagner’s song) Der Tannenbaum to set up the evening’s ‘surprise ending’, when the boys chorus (so corrupted) took up arms and aimed at the audience.

Director Kirsten Dehlholm conceived the opera as an opus in images with a message, suffused with symbolism and dominated by a white horse that traditionally represents Fate in Latvia; a projection of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School was the production’s only ‘scenery’. The characters’ costume and make-up took on a larger role, embodying their psychological states and positions: Rienzi wore ‘Tannenbaum’ green, face blackened with soot of sin; Irene (Rienzi’s sister) wore ‘water’ blue, still haunted by her brother’s drowning death; Adriano (Colonna’s son) wore rose, signifying sentimentality in sacrificing his life trying to save his love Irene; and the Roman noblemen (Paolo Orsini and Stefano Colonna) dressed in yellow, recalling their cunning to keep power. Characters often moved in a stylised manner, and the ever-present chorus walked back and forth in place to add motion to this action-deprived work.

Modelled after French Grand Opera, Rienzi exuded a tone more French than German, recalling Les Huguenots and La Juive, but also numerous sounds from Wagner’s next opera, Der fliegende Holländer. The flowery, occasionally bombastic music, lushly played by the Latvian National Opera Orchestra, was efficiently led by maestro Modestas Pitrenas. The cast, especially Torsten Kerl (Rienzi), Elisabet Strid (Irene), Ursula Hesse (Adriano) executed their roles with aplomb.

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