Early works by major composers can be fascinating. We try to see in them premonitions of the greatness to come, or hope they will cast light on a more familiar later work. The Opera Orchestra of New York’s concert presentation of Rienzi, Richard Wagner’s third opera, was fairly useless in this regard: most of Rienzi sounds nothing like mature Wagner. But it justifies itself on its own merits, a grand opera of impressive effect and achievement. This scrappy but exciting performance sometimes rose to the occasion.

Rienzi, premièred in 1842, is the story of the rise and fall of the titular 13th-century Roman leader Cola di Rienzo, rather like a more complex version of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. (Wagner’s source was an 1835 historical novel by Edward Bulwer Lytton.) Rienzi attempts to unite the Roman citizens under his leadership, but is ultimately undone by the powerful and corrupt noble families of Orsini and Colonna, as well as the forces of the Church. Wagner’s grand opera setting includes a large number of spectacular public scenes – processions, rallies, lofty speeches, and street fights – but these are balanced with the shadowy intrigue of the Orsini and Colonna conspirators. At the time, Wagner was attempting to found a German branch of French grand opera, something which no other composer had seriously attempted. The mature Wagner later made excuses for Rienzi’s obvious debt to the French style.

It certainly doesn’t sound much like later Wagner. The action is broadly painted with diatonic harmony and four-square phrases. The first half of the opera – which Wagner showed to Meyerbeer himself – is in the old-fashioned musical blocks of number opera, while the second half shows the composer working with larger sections that flow for longer periods of time. The vocal writing requires big but flexible voices, and considerable stamina. Supposedly the première ran for around six hours, though this original version has been lost. (This performance ran around three hours without intermissions, suggesting major cuts. Other than the ballet, which was left out entirely, they seemed to be snipping through individual numbers rather than entire scenes.) In the most chilling twist in Rienzi’s reception, the opera was loved by Hitler and it is believed that the autograph score may have burned in his bunker.

The Opera Orchestra of New York’s presentations are usually ad hoc affairs, and this one – unusually at Avery Fisher Hall instead of the usual Carnegie Hall – was no different. The company’s founder and conductor laureate Eve Queler returned to conduct. While she kept the massive forces more or less coordinated (including at one point a variety of small brass groups and drums placed around the auditorium), the tempos tended towards the stately and could have used a bit more electricity.

The star of the afternoon was French mezzo Géraldine Chauvet in the central trousers role of Adriano Colonna, a young noble torn between his conspiring family and his love for Rienzi’s sister, and also Rienzi’s sense of justice. Chauvet’s gleaming, focused tone was strong and even up to soprano-like top notes, and she sang with a conviction and passion that was both appropriate for her earnest character and very exciting. Hopefully we will hear Chauvet again in New York soon. The rest of the leads were weaker. In the title role, Heldentenor Ian Storey provided considerable volume and solid intonation, but sang with a woolly sound and a wide vibrato. As Rienzi’s sister Irene, soprano Elisabete Matos sang some spectacularly loud high notes, but mostly sounded flat and threadbare in her middle voice.

Fortunately the performance benefited from excellent support from the smaller roles and chorus. The two most impressive were bass-baritones Barndon Cedel as Raimondo and Philip Horst as Stefano Orsini, and clear-voiced soprano Emily Duncan-Brown made a memorable cameo as the Messenger of Peace. The afternoon’s most reliable asset was the New York Choral Society, who sang the work’s many choruses and concertantes with finely blended sound and musical precision. In the opera’s grandest of its many grand processions, it was joined by the excellent Vox Nova children’s chorus and an additional men’s chorus.

Despite the uneven performance, Rienzi proved to be a surprisingly involving opera. Those curious to hear more should also check out Deutsche Oper Berlin’s DVD of the work. Despite cuts even more severe than this performance’s, it still makes a good case for the score, staged in a provocative World War II setting. While Wagner turned away from grand opera soon after completing Rienzi, it remains well worth a rare hearing.