Deutsche Oper Berlin


HugenottenGiacomo Meyerbeer - Die Hugenotten

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1991 | Stefan Soltesz, John Dew, Angela Denning, Lucy Peacock, Richard Leech, Harmut Welker, Camille Capasso, Martin Blasius, Marcia Bellamy, Lenus Carlson, David Griffith, Otto Leuer, Friedrich Molsberger, Iván Sárdi, Josef Becker | Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Poor Giacomo Meyerbeer. The once highly regarded titan of the 5-Act Grand Opéra is now not only long out of fashion, but on the rare occasion when his work is revived it is scarcely treated with the seriousness and sincerity in which it was undoubtedly composed. I didn’t see the Royal Opera House’s recent widely derided production of Robert Le Diable, but judging it on the merits of the performance alone via its broadcast on Radio 3, it at least sounded interesting and probably deserving of a more sympathetic staging than the one devised by Laurent Pelly. Meyerbeer’s follow-up to Robert Le Diable (1831) was another beast of an opera, Les Huguenots (1836) and, unfortunately, it’s another work that - even more so now - that most opera houses would consider too expensive to risk putting on and no doubt also difficult to cast. This performance, dating back to 1991 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, casts the work well and tried a novel approach to the difficulties of staging the work.

Conducted by Stefan Soltesz and directed by John Dew, this is inevitably not a version that will satisfy purists (should such a thing as a Meyerbeer purist exist in this day and age). As imperfect as it is in some respects, the Deutsche Oper Die Hugenotten is at the moment the only opportunity you have to see one of the big important opera works of yesteryear, and it’s worthwhile for that alone. The first thing you will note about this Blu-ray release however is that the title has been rendered in German (unlike its previous DVD release) to reflect the fact that it is a German-language edition of the original French Les Huguenots performed here. That’s not so much of an issue, since Meyerbeer was actually of German origin and this version dates from an 1837 edition prepared by Ignatz Franz Castelli, so it should be close enough to the original work.

Les Huguenots does actually suit the German tongue surprisingly well, but of more concern is the fact that Castelli’s version to a large extent played down the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants that is critical to the work’s historical account of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 during the reign of King Charles IX. That historical content is furthermore all but abandoned in the German version of Castelli’s translation prepared by John Dew for the Deutsche Oper, which sets the work in the Berlin of the period that was then divided by the Berlin Wall. This recording of the production dates from 1991 after the breaking down of the wall, but even then it still dates from a period when the imagery still held real significance to the people of Berlin.

Quite how the situation in divided Berlin corresponds with religious conflict in Les Huguenots is however difficult to establish. In Meyerbeer’s opera - with a libretto from the illustrious team of Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps - Marguerite de Valois is to marry the Protestant King Henry of Navarra as a gesture of peace between the two sides. To further strengthen this union, the Count de Nevers accordingly invites the Huguenot Raoul de Nangis to his castle in Touraine and offers him marriage to Valentine de Saint-Bris, but Raoul has already seen a beautiful vision of loveliness and fallen in love unwittingly with Marguerite de Valois herself. After some romantic complications Raoul agrees to marry Valentine, but when he gets wind of a plot by the Catholics to massacre the Huguenots it only deepens the conflict between his duty and his heart.

How do we know this? Because just in case we miss it, Raoul tells us directly - “Duty… my heart… a difficult battle“, and Meyerbeer’s scoring only emphasises the obvious conflict even further. When there is something of a lack of subtlety (or taste), you can see why modern directors feel the need to play up the unintentional campness of Meyerbeer’s work. How else, for example, are you meant to stage Marcel’s “Piff, paff, poff!” aria nowadays other than having everyone skip around the stage in a half-dance? I’m not sure, but I think I’d like to see a more serious-minded director try it and not necessarily in a traditional context, since even in this shortened version (only two and a half hours for a 5-Act Grand Opéra?) Meyerbeer’s management and control of the number opera is evidently masterful, presenting a broad scope of melodrama, romance and entertainment in its varied situations with an abundance of melody and drive.

Are the Royalist Catholics meant to represent the Communist forces of East Germany and the Protestants the small population of the surrounded West Berliners? How will a marriage smooth relations in such a situation? The production might not correspond perfectly to its Berlin setting but neither does it really detract from the strength of the work or indeed from the performances in this production. The singing is exceptionally good from all the main performers. Richard Leech has the right kind of strong, resonant lyrical voice for Grand Opéra, reminding me a little of Roberto Alagna in places. He copes well with all the high-Cs thrown his way, but it’s Angela Denning who has the difficult role of Marguerite de Valois. Her opening Act II aria is fiendishly difficult and it shows her limitations, but she is good elsewhere. Lucy Peacock’s Valentine is marvellous and there’s good work also from Harmut Welker as the Comte de Saint-Bris and Camille Capasso as the Page. Only Martin Blasius’ Marcel isn’t up to the mark. To say the least.

Brian Large directs the production for the screen. I’m not sure what technology was available at the time in 1991, but the widescreen image is certainly HD quality and it looks excellent. The audio isn’t quite so good. Only a PCM stereo option is available and the lower-frequencies can be a little booming if you are playing this at any volume using a subwoofer. On headphones, the sound dynamic is better distributed to the L-R channels. The detail in the orchestration is there, if it’s not as clean and precise as we’re now used to with HD recordings, and the singing is relatively clear also. There are no extra features on the Blu-ray. The disc is all-region with subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

Deutsche Oper, Berlin 2012 | Donald Runnicles, Philipp Stölzl, Mara Kurotschka, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Albert Pesendorfer, Matti Salminen, Klaus Florian Vogt, Thomas Jesatko, Evelyn Herlitzius, Burkhard Ulrich, Andrew Harris, Kim-Lilian Strebel, Annie Rosen, Paul Kaufmann, Matthew Pena, Hulkar Sabirova, Martina Welschenbach, Rachel Hauge, Hila Fahima, Annie Rosen, Dana Beth Miller | 25 October 2012

Director Philipp Stölzl’s approach to the Deutsche Oper’s new 2012/13 production of Parsifal in Berlin is immediately and firmly established by the extraordinary setting for the work’s Overture. On a rocky recreation of Golgotha, Christ hangs from a cross in a meticulously detailed tableau vivant representation of the Crucifixion. Surrounded by onlookers freeze-framed in various states of anguish and despair, with Roman soldiers guarding the area, one significantly (as far as this opera is concerned) with a lance, the figures move in slow motion as Christ dies on the cross during the length of the overture, his side is pierced by the soldier’s spear and the blood that runs from it is caught in the chalice and respectfully coveted by his followers. It’s a powerful way to start a performance of this work, and when you have as beautiful a piece of music as the Overture to Parsifal, why waste it on something less than monumental? Solemn, respectful and dignified, the scene is however also completely relevant to the opera’s Passion play exploration of suffering and redemption through death and rebirth and appropriate in how those concepts are tied up by Wagner into the symbolic images of the Lance and the Holy Grail.

Any performance of Wagner’s remarkable final work should indeed be something of a spiritual experience over the course of its four and a half hour length, but there was a sense that Philipp Stölzl’s production here (co-directed by Mara Kurotschka) was perhaps a little too solemn and reverential - or perhaps somewhat too grandiose - to really touch on the transcendental elements of the work. If there’s a touch of kitsch to the production - something characteristic of this director - it’s appropriate to one where the iconography and glorification of Christ’s passion adheres to a certain Catholic tradition. You don’t need to look too far beyond the condition of Amfortas - the Knight of the Holy Grail in agony from a perpetual wound caused by the lance, his suffering deepened by each display of the Holy Grail that gives sustenance and renewed vigour to its followers - to recognise that it’s the question of suffering that is central to the work in how it can be a redemptive force. There was certainly plenty of pain on display in the Deutsche Oper’s new production - the opera house celebrating its 100th anniversary - but little sense of it leading to any kind of transcendental enlightenment.

Despite the prettification of the visuals, every ounce of the earth-shattering, curtain-tearing pain depicted in Christ’s Crucifixion and the despair in the faces of his followers (most notably in one Mary Magdalene/Kundry figure at the margins) is there in the opening scene and retained to be built upon by the events recounted by Gurnemanz and enacted in Parsifal’s journey to recover the Holy Spear from the hands of Klingsor. Stölzl recognises that all that suffering shown in the opening scene is going to be caught up in the musical themes established by Wagner in the Overture, and it consequently becomes impossible to disassociate the suffering of Christ himself every time those leitmotifs swirl and swell throughout the remainder of the work. And just in case the musical expression isn’t powerful enough (and under the baton of Donald Runnicles it often was, even if lacked any real character or vision), the director also uses every visual element to emphasise and add to the near overwhelming display of agony and despair.

That can be as simple as the Monsalvat set design sharing many of the rocky structures and contours of the opening Golgotha scene, but the subsequent scenes also reflect the opening, being mostly static in arrangement, each scene like a 3-dimensional engraving of one of the Stations of the Cross, a single image frieze set in slow motion movement. The set designs by Conrad Moritz Reinhardt and Stölzl moreover allow every element of the work to be examined in detail and every character to be explored for their own personal suffering that contributes to the collective pain. Even every element of the backstory narrated at length by Gurnemanz is depicted visually in mini scenes, as beautifully arranged and brutal as a Caravaggio painting, that are played out in the background on the tops of rocky outcrops. This production of Parsifal is as visually striking as previous Stölzl productions I’ve seen (Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and most notably his production of Wagner’s Rienzi, also for the Deutsche Oper), beautifully arranged, lit and coloured, more than a little kitch but - within its own designs - it’s also much more respectfully faithful here to the tone of the work in question.

It’s actually perhaps a little too literal and respectful for a work that should also have a life in a spiritual dimension. (That might sound like a pretentious statement for any other work, but not for this one). There’s no doubt that this production - musically as well as visually and conceptually - is completely faithful to the spirit of the work, but it never seems to get beyond it to illuminate or elevate the underlying meaning. That’s evidently a tall order for a work that is wrapped up in Wagner’s complex and contradictory ideas and philosophies, but while Stölzl’s production is not without its own personal touches in its examination of these concepts, they don’t really amount to much and don’t resolve into any kind of satisfactory conclusion. The confusion is best exemplified within the role of Amfortas - the Christ figure of the work - who is not healed by the lance at the end here, but allowed to escape from his pain through death at its touch. This perhaps relates to the very specific Good Friday notions of death and rebirth in a work that the composer described as a Bühnenweihfestspiel - “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage” - but quite where the necessary rebirth/transcendence is supposed to come from is less than clear. There is a suggestion however that the key to this interpretation could lie within the figure of Kundry.

More so than Parsifal or Amfortas, or even Gurnemanz, the focus in this production is very much on that contradictory element of Kundry, whose role is one of the ambiguities that the work principally revolves around - the saint and the sinner, the serpent and the agent of salvation. In this production she’s there at the crucifixion in the guise of Mary Magdalene, and is therefore the single element of continuity (other than the Grail and the Lance) that runs through the whole work, appearing in Gurnemanz’s backstory, being instrumental in bringing about Parsifal’s self-enlightenment, and in the end recognising her role to serve the new protector of the Grail. Here however, in the very final scene of the production, she seems to become terrified of the prospect of the worship and power that this inspires in Parsifal and the Grail’s followers, and where such Christian fervour might lead - a reference perhaps to future religious conflicts or perhaps, since it now seems almost obligatory to acknowledge in a Wagner opera, a premonitory vision of the rise of Nazism. As depicted by Evelyn Herlitzius in the role, Kundry remains a (female) figure of considerable interest and ambiguity, but quite how it all ties together must - perhaps necessarily considering the nature of the work - remain a mystery.

If the work never comes together musically or conceptually in a way that entirely lives up to the proposal put forward in the audacious opening scene, it’s through no fault of the singing performances. Now 67, Matti Salminen was simply superb, fulfilling everything that is required of a Gurnemanz, his deep, beautifully weighted sonorous tones providing the solid basis and solemn gravity that anchors the work in the real world while simultaneously hinting at timeless mysteries. One would think that Klaus Florian Vogt’s light lyrical tenor voice would not be as well suited to the Heldentenor role of Parsifal as it is to his angelic Lohengrin (even though the two characters are mythologically related), but yet again he brings another vocal dimension to a familiar role, demonstrating a capability of pulling those deeper resonant chest sounds out where necessary - such as in his cry of ‘Amfortas!’ at the recognition scene of the meaning of pain, suffering and love - and filling them with an expressive lightness and sensitivity. Dramatically however and in expression of his character, he was given little to work with by the director. Evelyn Herlitzius on the other hand had a rather more substantial personality as this production’s Kundry and rose to the challenge exceptionally well, emoting and projecting the sentiments of the work through some fine singing. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Amfortas), Albert Pesendorfer (Titurel) and Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor) were more than adequate if they didn’t make quite as much of an impression as the principal roles, but there was also some lovely singing from the three Flowermaidens.

MontezumaCarl Heinrich Graun - Montezuma

Deutsche Oper, Markgräfflichen Opernhaus, Bayreuth 1982 | Hans Hilsdorf, Herbert Wernicke, Alexandra Papadjiakou, Sophie Boulin, Gudrun Sieber, Catherine Gayer, Barbara Vogel, Walton Grönroos, Karl-Ernst Mercker | Arthaus

Released as part of the Deutsche Oper Archive series, this 1982 recording of Carl Heinrich Graun’s Montezuma may not be the most authentic representation of a rare work of Baroque opera seria or the best quality in terms of video presentation, but it’s a performance that is well worth preserving for a number of reasons. Although there are have been some revivals and discoveries of the operas of J.A. Hasse and J.C. Bach in recent years, there are very few recordings available of any of Graun’s work, despite the fact that he was an important figure in German opera composition of the period, working as Kapellmeister to King Friedrich II of Prussia, Frederick the Great. It’s his relationship with the latter which is the most notable aspect of this particular work, Montezuma (1755) - aside from the fine musical qualities of the work itself - with the King himself even providing the libretto for the opera, and it’s this aspect that is considered in the actual production, recorded in the suitably regal venue of the Markgräfflichen Opernhaus at Bayreuth.

It’s not difficult to see what would have attracted Frederick the Great to the subject of Montezuma, as not only is the subject that considers the duty of a great ruler towards his people a popular subject for opera seria - they were written for royal courts - particularly compositions written or following the Metastasian model, but it’s one that evidently has political relevance here for the librettist himself. Montezuma accordingly is characterised as a benevolent ruler, who sees his duty to resolve human misery, not to rule over his subjects by force. Mexico under the Aztec ruler therefore is a kind of a Golden Age, the people happy and contented, secure in their love for their ruler and the peace his great reign promises against the threat of weaker neighbours. Convention would insist on a romantic aspect to the opera, and here, happiness eludes Montezuma until he finds someone worthy to share his throne with him. That person is Eupaforice, the Queen of Tlascála, who will also ally him with another empire and strengthen his position and the security of his people.

It’s a fairly conventional opera seria then in this respect. Montezuma sings of length of his devotion to his people and his duty, and of striving for personal happiness. The plot ties both aspects together rather well with the arrival of the Spanish, Montezuma’s general Plipatoè warning him that Cortes poses a serious threat, while Eupaforice intimates that she has premonitions of doom. In his goodness and with faith in human nature, Montezuma however invites Cortes and Narvès to his wedding, only to be betrayed. If the relevance to Friedrich II’s time isn’t obvious - the Seven Years’ War would commence a year later in 1756, plunging Prussia into conflict with Austria and then Sweden the year after that - the relevance of the work when viewed in the light of historical events is made apparent in the staging of this production by Herbert Wernicke. Clearly not set in any exotic location, but rather in a more European palatial setting and gardens, the Aztecs moreover wear the period costume of the courts of the 18th century with powdered wigs, ball gowns and military greatcoats. The production would also seem to end with a reading of Frederick the Great’s actual declaration of war, as if the preceding opera has just been a warning that kindness and wisdom in a ruler is admirable, but sometimes he needs to be wise enough to chose when to fight for those freedoms.

If there are some minor liberties taken with the setting to put the work into context (and considering the writer of the libretto, it’s certainly a valid approach), the approach taken with the actual performance would be less justifiable today than they were perhaps when this production was recorded back in 1982. The first clue is that the work only runs to 2 hours and 20 minutes in length, when you could expect an opera seria of this period to be between three to four hours long. Considerable cuts have been applied therefore, and - considering that most of the expository recitative would appear to have been left intact to carry the plot, much of those cuts would have been applied to the long repetitions of the aria da capo with some perhaps excised altogether. That’s understandable for a performance of a very rare Baroque opera, when the performance of any Baroque opera at all - even Handel - would have been very rare indeed. To make it a little easier on the audience, Montezuma is also sung here in German, rather than the original Italian (it was probably written in French by Friedrich II before being translated to the common Italian for opera seria). Although inauthentic, this however works in favour of the production’s parallel to the historical Prussian Empire.

Thirty years ago, part of the reason why Baroque opera was so rarely performed was that there simply weren’t musicians trained to play the period instruments. Accordingly, other than the use of the harpsichord, the music has been arranged to fit modern orchestra instruments, but the whole pace and rhythm of the performance nonetheless feels absolutely right. Back in 1982, there weren’t any countertenors who could specialise in taking on the castrato roles of the work, so they are taken up here by female sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, which actually has the impact of making all the Aztecs in this production of Montezuma female and the Spanish male. If the work is mostly fairly conventional and not terribly dramatic, with stately marching rhythms and expressions of noble sentiments, there are nonetheless some lovely arias and one particularly fine duet between Montezuma and Eupaforice in Act III (’Ach, nur für Dich’ in German). The singing is also exceptionally good, particularly mezzo-soprano Alexandra Papadjiakou as Montezuma, and the performance of the Deutsche orchestra is also strong, performed with an elegant brio.

Released on DVD only, the video quality isn’t up to the standards you would expect today, but certainly acceptable and even very good despite the limitations of the source material. Clearly shot on video 4:3 for television broadcast, there’s a certain amount of noise and shimmer in the background, a level of graininess, and chroma noise, but it has nonetheless clearly been fully restored, the colours well-defined, strongly contrasted and a surprising level of sharpness and detail evident. The transfer is also very stable, with no flicker or wobble. The audio track is PCM stereo only and it’s also fine, with decent clarity to the orchestration and singing, holding relatively firm on the sustained higher notes. There are no extra features, but there is an informative essay and a synopsis included in the DVD’s booklet. The dual layer DVD is region free, NTSC, with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian.

DanaeRichard Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 2011 | Andrew Litton, Kirsten Harms, Manuela Uhl, Mark Delavan, Matthias Klink, Thomas Blondelle, Burkhard Ulrich, Hulkor Sabirova | Arthaus

The penultimate opera by Richard Strauss, Die Liebe der Danae was written in 1940 before his last opera Capriccio, but withheld until after the war for fear that the time wasn’t right for its rich, extravagant orchestration of a mythological tale that seemed to have little relevance to the times. The time it seems has never been right for Die Liebe der Danae, the opera only receiving its premiere in 1952 after Strauss’ death, and it would appear to have had even less relevance in the post-war years and in an world of German opera that was embracing the earthier, discordant sounds of Berg, Hindemith and Weill. Consequently, Die Liebe der Danae has rarely been performed (according to the notes on this release there have been only 16 productions worldwide in the last 60 years), but at a time when economic concerns have banking institutions and large countries teetering on the brink of crisis, perhaps the time is finally right for Strauss’ neglected late masterwork. This 2011 production at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin certainly makes a persuasive case for it.

The classical subject of the opera relates to another of Jupiter’s mythological liaisons (Semele, Leda and one or two other conquests also appear in this opera), in his attempts to seduce Danae, the daughter of King Pollux of Eos. With the kingdom of Eos near bankruptcy through the extravagant lifestyle of the King, Jupiter knows that Danae’s weakness is gold, and since the king is keen to marry his daughter to a rich suitor in order to restore his fortunes, how could they resist an offer of marriage from Midas, the legendary King of Lydia, whose touch will turn anything into gold? Jupiter disguises himself therefore as Midas, and forces Midas himself to act as his messenger Chrysopher and make the necessary arrangements. Danae however, against the odds and her love of gold, rejects the disguised Jupiter and falls in love with the real Midas instead, unaware of who he really is. It’s a choice that is to have grave repercussions.

Danae

The libretto for Die Liebe der Danae was written by Joseph Gregor, who was never as successful in his collaborations with the composer as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but based on some original ideas by Hofmannsthal, there are more interesting themes within the storyline than are obvious on the surface, and inevitably some amount of operatic references and self-referentiality on the part of the composer. The mythological elements have some similarity to Die Walküre – the allure and the power of the Gods diminishing, the strength of human love that takes its place expressed in the union of Midas and Danae – and the score accordingly sees some of Strauss’ most Wagnerian touches, certainly in Act II at least. It’s tempting to see, as the author of the booklet notes on this release points out, Strauss in the role of Jupiter, considering his position at this stage in his life and concerned about his legacy in a world that may no longer need him.

There is however it seems to me something of Strauss in Midas also, “cursed” with a gift that turns everything to gold – Die Liebe der Danae is scored as beautifully, extravagantly, lushly and with infinite levels complexity as some of the greatest of Strauss’ works – but it’s a gift that carries with it the danger of turning whatever it touches into something cold and lifeless. Much of Strauss’ operatic work could certainly be considered as being too intellectualised and self-referential, as cool and lifeless as the golden rose in Der Rosenkavalier – an image that is even used again in this opera with the turning of a natural flower into a beautiful but lifeless gold object. But, considering the nature of opera again in his final work Capriccio, the composer seems to come to an accommodation that the underlying truth and life in his work will endure and still find a way to reach out and touch the human spirit. All that glitters may not always be gold, but sometimes it is.

Danae

It’s taken a long time for recognition to be given to this particular opera, which makes this release all the more welcome. The Deutsche Oper production of this beautiful but rarely performed work is an absolute delight and a real treat for fans of Richard Strauss. Directed by Kirsten Harms, there is perhaps some attempt to make a personal identification of the opera’s themes with the composer by hanging an upturned piano over the set in all three acts with falling pages of a music score instead of golden rain, but otherwise this is a relatively straightforward and faithful staging of the opera, set in a timeless mythological world that is neither period nor modern. It looks marvellous and comes across well on the screen, the sets perfectly appropriate for the scale and the nature of the subject. The casting is good and the singing excellent with Manuela Uhl as Danae, Mark Delavan as Jupiter and Matthias Klink as Midas. If there are a few minor areas where the strength of the singing is competing to be heard above the sumptuous, layered score, it’s nonetheless as good as you could hope for from a live performance.

The High Definition PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.0 audio tracks on the Blu-ray however really work marvellously, the mixing giving the voices adequate space, while putting across the full splendour and luscious beauty of a score that, superbly performed by the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Andrew Litton, ranges from delicate, sparkling playfulness to brooding, contemplative melancholy. Consummately Richard Strauss then, and this performance amply demonstrates the qualities and strengths of an opera that, like much of the composer’s late work, remains largely unknown, underperformed, underrated and surely ripe for rediscovery.

RienziRichard Wagner - Rienzi Der Letzte Der Tribunen

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010 | Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Philipp Stölzl, Torsten Kerl, Kate Aldrich, Camilla Nylund | Arthaus Musik

Normally an abridged version of an opera would not be something one would find acceptable, particularly when the production itself has been updated and modernised, but Wagner’s 1842 opera Rienzi (Rienzi Der Letzte Der Tribunen) - almost forgotten but certainly eclipsed by the composer’s next opera Der fliegende Holländer - is an opera in serious need of rehabilitation, not least because of the infamy of it supposedly being Hitler’s favourite opera. Cut down in half from its original five hour running time, the five acts compressed into two parts, this 2010 Deutsche Oper Berlin production, conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing and directed by pop-video and film director Philipp Stölzl, does however manage to give a new lease of life to the opera, or at least bring out elements in it that suggest that, for all its flaws and its troubled history, it’s time the opera were confronted to determine whether its worthy of reconsideration and re-evaluation.

As the story deals with the rise and fall of the 14th century Roman dictator Cola di Rienzo, it seems appropriate in this production to emphasise the uncanny parallels that the opera has with the rise of Hitler and his downfall. To not do so would be unthinkable, according to the director Philipp Stölzl, and indeed it’s impossible not to see the remarkable coincidences in the common circumstances that give rise to a Rienzi here and those of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin or Ceausescu. Accordingly, being a German production, the opening part of Rienzi with the struggles between the Orsini and the Colonna factions, is clearly set in Germany’s interwar years. In the midst of these troubled times, Rienzi appears, promising to bring the people freedom, lead them out of their shame and make them a great nation once again, despite the warning from Adriano that “to reach your proud ends, you shall leave a trail of blood”.

Brilliantly, the staging absorbs the cultural references of the times, Rome/Berlin looking like a backdrop of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with German Expressionist angles, while the warring Orsini and Colonna followers are masked and distorted like figures out of a colourful George Grosz painting. This soon changes unsettlingly into the militaristic imagery of a fascist dictatorship, with propaganda films influenced by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will playing out in the background. As Rome enters into war in the second part of the revised opera, an increasingly embattled Rienzi is seen in a underground bunker, planning his grand vision of a new Rome while the reality above the ground is something quite different. The parallels between Rienzi and Hitler are eerily premonitory, arising as much from the text of the libretto as the production design and never feeling forced.

Apart from the association of Wagner with the Third Reich, in almost all other respects, the Grand Opera of Rienzi scarcely feels like a Wagnerian musical drama. The busy crowded staging and the huge rousing choruses are a recognisable feature and there are one or two prototype Wagner characters in this early opera, but otherwise the drama and storytelling is concise and to the point. Not being familiar with the full 5-hour version of Rienzi, much of this however could be down to the tightening of the focus by the cutting down of the opera for this production, but the decision to revise the opera considerably seems justified by the results.

This is not a great Wagner opera by any means, certainly not when compared to Der fliegende Holländer which immediately followed it, but musically it’s not a bad opera in its own right, with a beautiful overture, some wonderful symphonic passages, and there is a strong study of the conditions that give rise to a dictatorship in its drama. It at least has a certain curiosity value in the fact that Hitler would have seen in this opera the means of his own rise to power and a premonition of his downfall, but it also has an interesting place in the history and development of German opera.

The Blu-ray edition of Rienzi has a 16:9 image that is just about flawless. There’s a strong 5.1 DTS HD-Master Audio mix, although I didn’t notice any LFE subwoofer activity at all - your neighbours however will probably be thankful for this considering the force of the performance and the recording that is still evident. The PCM stereo mix is also terrific. A 27-minute Making Of is not particularly in-depth, but covers the background and the concept of this production through interviews and rehearsal footage.