Wagner’s Rienzi: a Staple at OONY

Opera Orchestra of New York - Wagner's Rienzi - Photo Chris Lee

New York, NY -This past weekend New York City was ablaze with Wagner. While Deborah Voigt rode off into the sacrificial fire at the premiere of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Götterdämmerung on Friday night, Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York offered a lighter fare of Wagnerian barbecue with a nobly bombastic concert version of Wagner’s  Rienzi on Sunday, January 29.

The 1842 debut of Rienzi was an undisputed success for the young composer who also wrote the libretto. While Wagner would later denounce Meyerbeer and the excesses of Italian and French grand opera, he structured the five-act Rienzi using these guidelines. The score is full of large ensembles, choruses, marches, ballets that elevate the themes of pride, heroism, and loyalty rather; however, the story is clearly told and the character’s vividly portrayed. Acts I through III belong to the masses, but Acts IV and V concentrate on the relationships between Rienzi, titular tragic hero, his sister Irene, and Adriano, who is Irene’s fiancée and Rienzi’s enemy.

Opera Orchestra of New York - Geraldine Chauvet (Adriano), Eve Queler (conductor) - Photo Chris LeeSince founding the Opera Orchestra of New York in 1971, Eve Queler has been a conjurer of operas past, giving pulses to long-forgotten, neglected, or wrongfully maligned works. This was the fourth time that OONY has presented Rienzi, and Queler’s love for the work is palpable with every gesture. Hers is an easy, quirky conducting style, dependent on economy of gesture and omniscient confidence. In a concert setting, the orchestra has to compensate for the lack of scenery, and Queler achieved this marvelously, especially in the final scene when Adriano looks on in horror as the building in which Rienzi and Irene are imprisoned is set on fire. Stage tricks and technology cannot replace the imagery created by masterful music-making.

Géraldine Chauvet sang an Adriano of well-measured control in the first two acts, indomitable passion in the third, and manic desperation in the fourth and fifth. The French mezzo-soprano was clearly the audience favorite, winning the afternoon’s heftiest ovation after Adriano’s third act aria “Gerechter Gott!” Demanding bel canto lyricism and a treacherously high tessitura over the corpulence of a Wagnerian orchestra, this aria is a marathon. Chauvet sang it without inhibition, but she lost control toward the end.

Opera Orchestra of New York - Geraldine Chauvet (Adriano), Elisabete Matos (Irene), Ian Storey (Rienzi) - Photo Chris LeeThe drama of Rienzi revolves around Irene, Rienzi’s sister and Adriano’s fiancée. For the first three acts, Irene stands on the periphery of the action, but Rienzi and Adriano’s mutual love for this woman is the major catalyst in the drama. In the last two acts, Irene finally emerges as a character of immense courage and conviction. Elisabete Matos portrayed this transformation perfectly, though I am not at all convinced that it was intentional. In Irene’s few contributions to the first three acts, Matos sang without distinction, mutilating her vocal line gulps and scooping. Matos dominated the fourth and fifth acts, diving into the high-laying and tempestuous confrontations with Rienzi and Adriano.

As the title star of the evening, Ian Storey sang Rienzi with little personality and a lot of pressure. His high notes were big and brilliant, but his middle was muffled and marred with bleating; his lower notes never made it to the party. His singing was utilitarian. While he managed to show some engagement in the most dramatic moments, he was limp when introspection, sensitivity, and humanity were demanded. Rienzi’s Act IV prayer “Allmächtger Vater” was monochromatic and uninspired.

Bass-baritone Philip Horst made an indelible impression as Adriano’s father, Stefano Colonna, displaying seamless dramatic commitment and a voice of Wagnerian proportions and intellectual precision. The vocal personalities of soprano Emily Duncan Brown as the Messenger of Peace and baritone Shannon DeVine as Cecco del Vecchio also stood out among the secondary characters.

Given its grand opera roots, Rienzi relies on the active and skilled participation of the chorus. The New York Choral Ensemble poured forth wave upon wave of noble sound. The children’s chorus was sung with astounding accuracy and musicality by the Vox Nova of the Special Music School.

Cori Ellison deserves a special mention not often accorded to the authors of supertitles, who have the thankless and anonymous task of rewriting someone else’s story. Ellison’s supertitles were accessibly erudite, dramatically faithful, and full of humanity; they were integral to the afternoon’s success.

Photos by Chris Lee

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