New opera company launches with stirring five-hour Wagner odyssey
If Boston’s new company, Odyssey Opera, was aiming to make some noise with its debut, it certainly did with Wagner’s Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen. The concert performance, presented Sunday in Jordan Hall, was the first endeavor by Odyssey Opera. It was also a rebirth of sorts for artistic director Gil Rose who had been the director of the defunct Opera Boston, which folded in 2011.
Pulling off a concert version of a five-hour opera would be a feat for even an established company, yet Odyssey Opera largely met those challenges, helped by some larger-than-life singing and a firecracker orchestra.
Wagner’s later disavowal of his early opera notwithstanding, it’s not difficult to see why Rienzi is not in the standard repertoire. Though it takes place in Rome, this is not the Roman Empire of popular imagination. Rather, it’s medieval Rome, centuries after its fall, now subjugated by the alien (and Catholic) powers of Austria. The nascent Germany of Wagner’s time was dealing with similar problems, interestingly enough straining under the same Austrian power. In this context, Rienzi is a fascinating reflection of Wagner’s own historical millieu. It is also an interesting musical document, incorporating Bellini and looking forward to Wagner’s later works.
Dramatically though, it is vexed. The story follows the rise and fall of the titular character, Rienzi, who exploits his popularity with Roman mobs to become Tribune of the Romans, and falls when the mob turns on him. Is Rienzi a power-hungry demagogue? Or is he an idealist, blinded by his own vision? Wagner gives us no answer, though he does provide plenty of declamation.
The dramatic black hole in Rienzi’s character was mirrored by the evening’s only vocal disappointment. Perhaps Kristian Benedikt, singing the title role, was having a bad night, but apart from some clarion top notes, his tenor simply lacked the body needed for this demanding role. It didn’t help that every other singer in the cast had amplitude to spare.
Elisabete Matos as Irene, Rienzi’s sister, seemed initially miscast. Her piercing, somewhat edgy instrument sounded wrong for the gentle sympathetic character. But as Irene developed, Matos’s performance grew in power and conviction and her dramatic temperament almost made one forget this was only a concert. David Kravitz and Stephen Salters, in short roles as villainous noblemen, also needed nothing more than their voices to embody the drama. Especially impressive was Salters’s easy, rich, and nuanced singing.
Despite its title, the most developed character in Rienzi is Adriano Colonna, a young nobleman torn between love for Irene and loyalty to his own father. Margaret Jane Wray vindicated her part with a warm, focused mezzo that was a lesson in how to phrase Wagnerian declamation. Ethan Bremner, Christina English, Kristopher Irmiter, Frank Kelley, and Robert Honeysucker rounded out the ensemble with strong singing all around.
But the real star Sunday might have been the Odyssey Opera orchestra. Complemented by offstage bands and women’s chorus—the Lorelei Ensemble—conductor Gil Rose seemed determined to pull all the stops for this performance. It is to his credit that he not only sustains but rides Wagner’s relentless orchestral climaxes without losing orchestral clarity. This latter was a keen asset whenever the chorus, singing enthusiastically, got involved.
Given Sunday evening’s stirring performance, it’s no surprise that Rienzi was a blockbuster in Wagner’s day. So impassioned and involving was the performance that as the colonnades tumbled down upon Rienzi’s head at the end of the opera, one almost expected the rafters of Jordan Hall to fall as well.
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