On Friday, March 11, I saw the Deutsche Oper in Berlin’s production of Rienzi, Richard Wagner’s third opera. Rienzi is a Grand Opera in the Parisian style, an approach Wagner eventually rejected. Although Wagner excluded Rienzi and his first two operas from the canon of the Bayreuth Festival, Rienzi remained his most popular opera throughout his lifetime. Wagner came to find Rienzi “quite repugnant,” but Gustav Mahler characterized it as nothing less than “the greatest musical drama ever composed.”
Based on the Berlin performance, I think Mahler was closer to being right. Rienzi really is a Grand Opera, in its literal sense of a great opera, surely the greatest Grand Opera of them all.
Rienzi is based on the life of Cola di Rienzi (1313–1354), the medieval Roman populist dictator who quelled the factional warfare that had laid Rome low, exiled its corrupt elites, became the Tribune of the People, and promised — as Wagner puts it — to “make Rome great again.” Contra the Eurasianist slogan that the nation-state is a dumb 19th-century idea, Rienzi even proposed the unification of Italy under a single government more than 600 years before the Risorgimento. But Rienzi was betrayed by the church, the aristocracy, and eventually the people, and undermined by his own errors. In 1354, a mob set the Roman Capitol on fire and murdered Rienzi as he tried to escape.
The most remarkable thing about Deutsche Oper’s production of Rienzi is that they have turned it into a great opera about the rise and fall of another populist dictator, Adolf Hitler. This is actually highly appropriate, because it was a performance of Rienzi in Linz in 1906 or 1907 that inspired Hitler to pursue a political career. Like Rienzi, Hitler came from humble origins, represented the interests of the people against corrupt elites, rose through the power of his personality and oratory, sought to unite all his people into a single homeland, fell due to the machinations of his enemies, the betrayal of his friends, and his own mistakes, and died in the flaming ruins of his own Capitol, Albert Speer’s Chancellery. Hitler even owned the original manuscript of Rienzi. It was one of the prized possessions he kept with him in the bunker to the very end. (The manuscript was either lost, destroyed, or stolen after Hitler’s death. The same fate befell the manuscript of Wagner’s first opera Die Feen.)
The Berlin production does not openly portray Rienzi as Hitler. Instead, Rienzi is simply a generic inter-war fascist dictator. The Roman setting and the heavy use of black inevitably call Mussolini to mind. But there are three clear references to Hitler. First, during the overture, we see Rienzi’s office with a vast window looking out on a mountain range:
This is an obvious reference to the window in the great hall of Hitler’s mountain retreat near Berchtesgaden:
During the overture, Rienzi — played by a fat man in a white uniform who looks more like Göring than Hitler — contemplates his realm and dreams of greater things. As his excitement rises, he climbs on his desk, scampers around the room, and even does cartwheels. (You can see him behind the desk, in mid-acrobatics, in the image above.) This may be an allusion to Charlie Chaplin’s antics in The Great Dictator, but I think it refers to the sheer exuberance of Wagner himself. According to Sebastian Röckl, during the rehearsals for Tristan and Isolde: “If a difficult passage went particularly well [Wagner] would spring up, embrace or kiss the singer warmly, or out of pure joy stand on his head on the sofa, creep under the piano, jump on to it, run into the garden and scramble joyously up a tree.”
The other unmistakable Hitler references are Rienzi’s bunker under the Roman Capitol and the model for a New Rome that he keeps within it:
These are obvious references to Hitler’s bunker and the model of the domed Great Hall that he planned for a new Berlin called Germania:
Hitler actually took his models for Berlin and Linz to the Bunker with him and would contemplate them to soothe his troubled mind, as does Rienzi in the Deutsche Oper production.
What is the intention of making Rienzi into an opera about Hitler? Obviously, a thoroughly Leftist institution like the Deutsche Oper would never have approved this production if they did not think it is deconstructive of Wagner or Hitler or both. But, as deconstructionists are fond of pointing out, sometimes texts don’t mean what their authors think they mean. If the Hitler-Rienzi is supposed to taint Rienzi by associating it with Hitler, the actual effect is quite different. Indeed, it is more likely to rehabilitate Hitler by associating him with the story of Rienzi and Wagner’s glorious music.
One of the weaknesses of smug and dogmatic liberals is their assumption that they can refute ideas they oppose simply by repeating them. This is often self-defeating, because such ideas do not seem self-evidently wrong to normal people. An unbiased individual watching Rienzi can easily sympathize with its protagonist and his methods. The opera opens with the attempted rape of Rienzi’s sister by one of the two aristocratic clans contending for power in the city. Later, we learn that Rienzi’s brother had been murdered by a member of the other gang. Rome has no leadership that can secure the common good. Rival gangs are fighting for power. The church is ineffectual. The papacy has been relocated to Avignon.
In the past, when politics as usual could not serve the common good because of the selfishness and pusillanimity of factions, the Romans appointed a dictator to right the ship of state. Rienzi rises to power, exiles the warring clans, and secures the interest of the people, transforming a slovenly, unruly mob into a smartly uniformed and drilled army. As I said to my host at the end of the first half of the opera, “I think the message here is that fascism is the answer.”
The latter half of the opera tells the story of Rienzi’s downfall: the exiled factions return to Rome and besiege it, the Church and his allies betray him, and the people turn on him. But it turns out that Rienzi’s only mistake, his only tragic flaw, is that he he was too merciful to his enemies. (The historical Rienzi made other mistakes, but in the opera, this is his sole error.) Earlier in the opera, the aristocracy tried to assassinate him, and he pardoned them. The Deutsche Oper production misleadingly shows some of the conspirators being executed anyway, which makes Rienzi out to be a hypocrite. But if Rienzi had simply killed all his enemies, when he had caught them red-handed trying to kill him, rather than exiling or pardoning them, he could have kept his promise to restore Rome’s greatness and unify Italy. This is not a Left-liberal lesson.
Furthermore, when Rienzi and his sister are murdered at the end by the mob he had sought to lift up, there is no sense of justice, just a spectacle of utter moral squalor as human greatness is laid low by the stupid, petty, and vicious. A populist dictator as tragic hero — nay, Adolf Hitler as tragic hero — is not a Left-liberal lesson either.
But Rienzi is not just a play. It is an opera. And it is more than an opera. It is a Grand Opera, an unrelenting spectacle of marches, massed choruses, and ever-grander finales. The original Rienzi was in five acts, including a more than 30-minute ballet on the Rape of Lucretia in the second act. The 1842 Dresden premiere lasted 6 hours, including intermissions. Later performing versions were cut, sometimes drastically. The Rienzi I saw in Berlin was in two acts and lasted 3 hours, including a 20 minute intermission. About 2 hours of Wagner’s music was cut. It was, however, probably comparable to the version Hitler saw in Linz, and it is easy to see why it made such an impression.
Purely as music and spectacle, Rienzi has the power to persuade as well. We know Rienzi is a great man, because great music reveals his soul. (Particularly the aria “Allmächt’ger Vater, Blick Herab” — “Almighty Father, Look Down.”) Fascism and National Socialism were not just political movements but highly seductive mass aesthetic spectacles. Although the Berlin production is clearly based on Fascist and National Socialist rallies, in truth one of the inspirations for Hitler’s party rallies — with their marches, banners, and Roman-style standards — is Rienzi itself. Thus it should come as no surprise that Hitler opened his party rallies with the Overture to Rienzi.
Rienzi is not particularly well-served on CD. The best performance by far is the Edward Downes/BBC version of the complete opera, which clocks in at 4 hours, 40 minutes. Although the complete printed score of Rienzi was incinerated in Dresden in 1945, and the manuscript disappeared from Hitler’s bunker, complete vocal and piano scores are extant, which made it possible to reconstruct pretty much what was heard at the 1842 Dresden premiere. Unfortunately, the Downes recording was released only in a pirated edition and then withdrawn. It is worth seeking out on torrent sites. The best cut version available is a 3 hour, 17 minute live recording conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch.
There are only two productions of Rienzi on video. The Deutsche Oper production premiered in 2010, and a performance from that season is available on DVD/Blu-Ray. The title role is sung by the powerful tenor Torsten Kerl, who also sang in the performance I saw. There is another Blu-Ray of a Toulouse production, also featuring Kerl, which I have not yet seen. Apparently, it is done in a minimalist style and features an extra 20 minutes of Wagner’s music.
But nothing beats live performance. I have several Rienzi recordings, but the opera never captured my imagination until I saw it on stage. If you want to see Rienzi live, you will have to go to Europe. The Deutsche Oper’s production is no longer playing in Berlin, but it may return in coming seasons. The Leipzig Opera, however, is performing Rienzi this spring on May 15 and 22. (The performance on the 22nd is part of a three day festival of Wagner’s early operas, a must see for Wagner completists.)
New light was thrown on the subversive effect of the Deutsche Oper’s Rienzi when I learned it was the work of director Philipp Stölzl. You may have encountered Stölzl at Counter-Currents before. Stölzl has directed several music videos for the German hard rock band Rammstein, including their controversial video for “Stripped” which is a montage of images from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. (His other Rammstein videos are “Du Hast” and “Du Riechst So Gut ’98.”) Stölzl is also the director of the superb movie North Face, a revival of the inter-war German “mountain film” genre extensively reviewed here by Derek Hawthorne.
So Stölzl has a history of aesthetically rehabilitating elements of German inter-war culture condemned by the Left as fascist. Moreover, Stölzl’s current project is a TV movie adaptation of Karl May called Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. As with Rienzi, May’s most famous fan is Adolf Hitler. This raises the possibility that the rehabilitative effect of Stölzl’s Rienzi is not entirely accidental. But, of course, like all who write under the threat of persecution, he maintains plausible deniability. I don’t think Stölzl would be entirely unhappy, though, if one day in his audience an idealistic young man starts dreaming of making Germany great again.