Oper Leipzig served up Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen as the closing piece of its Wagner Festtage “Frühe Werke”, as they refer to the composer’s trio of early works here. Nicolas Joël’s production of Wagner’s breakthrough hit premiered here nearly a decade ago. While Das Liebesverbot proved an extraordinary example of a minimal yet vibrant production elevated to a higher class by the Gewandhaus Orchestra , this Rienzi had the opposite effect. A drab production halted Wagner’s momentum due to lingering stage dynamics. Nonetheless, the musicians delivered several powerful moments. While the first two acts contained plenty of musical excellence, the inertia on stage throughout the remaining parts could not be overcome.

Stefan Vinke (Rienzi) © Ralf Martin Hentrich
Stefan Vinke (Rienzi)
© Ralf Martin Hentrich

Joël’s staging of the power struggles between nobility in 1347 Rome and Rienzi’s rise and fall as the last of the Tribunes, left a lot to be desired. While Matthias Foremny presented a monumental overture with magnificent brilliance and layered transparency, the stage response disappointed. In Act I, a map of Rome covers a wall on the stage’s forefront. You would have expected hidden behind the map a big set reveal, but that never happened. In Act II, the map is now on the ground. The choir and singers hustle and bustle. For the last three acts, maquettes of historical locations in Rome were included on the map, now a rotating cylinder.

In such a minimal production, where the set is second to Wagner’s music, explosive vocal chemistry on stage is vital, but this was not the case. During his first aria “Die Freiheit Rom’s” Stefan Vinke demonstrated his formidable range and stamina. As he displayed all the way through to Rienzi’s Prayer, Vinke has a great technical voice: everything he sings seems perfectly natural to him. Still, I made no emotional connection to him in this role. I recently heard him as a stunning Siegfried in the third part of Leipzig’s Ring Cycle. That magnificent performance contrasted starkly with his Rienzi that sounded perfunctory and lacked persona.

Ensemble and Chorus © Kirsten Nijhof
Ensemble and Chorus
© Kirsten Nijhof

The lacuna of stage drama proved detrimental in Act II when Adriano and Irene plead for mercy from Rienzi for his father’s betrayal. This paramount scene unfolded highly unevenly: while the soloists lacked synergy, the choir did give a thunderous jolt with their brief phrase “Tod treffe die Verräter!”. At this point the orchestra still propelled an engaging forward momentum. Alessandro Zuppardo should be commended for the consistently high intensity and precious nuances of the Chor Oper Leipzig. Vocal cohesion and crystalline translucence explain the luxurious, resounding depth. Their enriched pathos channelled the People’s jubilation, woe and anger. Highly effective and consistent, this first class Leipzig ensemble stimulated goosebumps and sent shivers down my spine during Wagner’s massive choral scenes.

Vida Mikneviciute phrasing distinguished her Irene with an urgent presence that was becoming for her character. Another good thing was her chemistry with Kathrin Göring, who pulled off an authentic Adriano. She suited the trouser role, as was evident in her showstopping aria, full of conflict, “Gerechter Gott!”.

Vida Mikneviciute (Irene) © Kirsten Nijhof
Vida Mikneviciute (Irene)
© Kirsten Nijhof

The supporting cast of the Leipzig ensemble impressed. Sejong Chang offered stately eminence as the Cardinal. He impressively embodied three wildly diverse characters with such authenticity over the course of three days. This guy can morph into anything. And perhaps it was because he was the only Spaniard amongst the mostly Germanic cast, but Ricardo Llamas Márquez’s voice refreshingly contrasted as an exotic tone in the mix. Martin Petzold sang decently as Baroncelli and Jürgen Kurth convinced as Orsini.

Acts III to V were sown together with dragging scene changes that made the last 90 minutes fragmented. In the moments where the music had not swept me away, it seemed repetitive: the production’s halting momentum impeded the orchestra. Without its fresh vitality, the heavy-handed bellicose temperament of Wagner’s score became too imposing towards the end.

***11