Boston’s new opera company, Odyssey Opera, introduced itself Sunday at Jordan Hall with an incendiary concert performance of Richard Wagner’s Rienzi, inaugurating a new era of opera in the Boston soundscape. As General Director Gil Rose recently told Intelligencer readers, he hopes to “…mount a concert version of something large like this year’s Rienzi that is rare and wouldn’t otherwise be taken on.” When one considers the rarity by which the most popular of Wagner’s works are performed here, Rose’s success with one of Wagner’s longest (at nearly six hours), least known and most demanding works has resulted in a significantly raised bar for opera in Boston.
In 1840, as he languished in poverty in Paris, Richard Wagner finished his third opera, Rienzi. At the time, he was still reeling from a failed production of his second opera, Das Liebesverbot: a failure Wagner attributed to the wanting resources and provincial artists of the small, rural opera house in Magdeburg where it premiered. To prevent this from happening again, Wagner wrote Rienzi in such a grand manner that it would be daunting for a smaller company to produce. Further, although Rienzi’s premiere occurred in Dresden, Wagner wrote it for the Paris stage with famed composer Giacomo Meyerbeer’s support. As a result Wagner’s work carries many of the traits of the French Grand Opera; traits such as massive melodramatic depictions of battle and occasion, and vocal parts of a world class Italianate virtuosity that only the largest opera companies could accommodate.
Similarly, the opera’s plot fits perfectly within the genre and history of French Grand Opera. The libretto, written by the composer and based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s account of the life of Cola di Rienzi (1313-1354), is a proto-fascist story of medieval Rome in which a charismatic leader gains the church’s backing and outwits the existing aristocracy in order to bring the people into power. Things meet a tragic and sublime end when both the church and the people who supported Rienzi turn against him in the end. There are many apparent influences here. The leader’s liberating role echoes Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici. The religious plotting and conspiracy, as well as the integrated role of the chorus, are markedly similar to Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836). The ending with a great explosion echoes the sublime endings of earlier revolutionary French Operas (Cherubini’s Lodoïska (1791) comes to mind) but having the charismatic leader-protagonist die in the explosion is a newer innovation, one that Meyerbeer himself employed in Le Prophete, a work from the same period. Although Rienzi may only show hints of Wagner’s later dramatic innovations, it clearly displays his early and complete mastery of the Grand Opera.
For the production on Sunday, Conductor and General Director Rose pulled out all the stops. He packed a full orchestra and the 70-member Odyssey Opera chorus onto the extended stage at Jordan Hall, allowing additional musicians to spill into the balcony. At some points, particularly in the battle scenes when the full orchestra was directly engaged with the eager Odyssey Opera Chorus, the music raised such a din that one wondered if it could be heard around the corner at Symphony Hall (where the production should have been held in the first place).
This is not to say that the volume was not appropriate or even unintended by the composer. The plot hinges on the unpredictable yet immensely powerful role of the crowd (the chorus) in the public sphere of Rome. Rienzi’s ability to gain control of the crowd gives him to power and at the end it is his loss of control of the same crowd that brings him to his end. Thus, the title role is legendarily difficult. It demands an onstage and singing presence for the majority of the opera’s span and culminates with the famous “Rienzi’s Prayer” five hours after the overture.
Lithuanian Tenor Kristian Benedikt’s reading of the role on Sunday was daring, intelligent and downright extraordinary. Understanding the nature of his part, Benedikt used the dark and burnished nature of his instrument to create an appropriate gravitas that strained to compete with the chorus. It was a dramatic decision that appropriately reflected the challenge his character faced in controlling the crowd. Throughout he maintained a good pace in this crushing role. At the opening of the final act the audience interrupted his entrance with a brief applause, acknowledging that Benedikt was prepared to (and did) leave everything that he had on the stage.
Rienzi’s sister Irene (yes, another pair of Wagnerian siblings) was played by the Portuguese powerhouse soprano Elisabete Matos. Her voice did not blend, but instead soared over or burst through the orchestra’s sound with striking force. If Matos brought the muscle, Margaret Jane Wray brought the nuance to the production with her performance of the trouser role Adrianno Colonna, a character caught between loyalty for his father (a Roman aristocrat) and love for Rienzi’s sister. The two sopranos gave a memorable performance of their first-act duet “Ja, eine Welt voll Leiden.”
As antagonists, baritones David Kravitz (Paolo Orsini) and Stephen Salters (Steffano Colonna, Adrianno’s father) were quite substantial, providing eloquent and exacting musicianship to their parts. As Rienzi’s fair-weather friends, tenor Ethan Bremner (Baroncelli) and baritone Robert Honeysucker (Cecco del Vecchio) also sang with great form. Most exciting however, was the quality of Harris Ipock’s chorus, supported by the divine Lorelei Ensemble, and the nuanced performance by the Odyssey Opera Orchestra under Rose’s baton. In opera, the singers create the performance, but the ensembles create the institution.
Later in his life, when Wagner became famous and his vitriol towards Meyerbeer emerged, he forbid Rienzi from being performed at Bayreuth. This demand had held since his death in 1883 until this year; during the composer’s bicentennial celebration, Rienzi found its way onto the stage at Bayreuth (but not at the Festspielhaus) for the first time. This fact is remarkable unto itself, but even more remarkable is the fact that with its own celebratory production of Rienzi at Jordan Hall, Odyssey Opera has shown that it can amass the talent and passion to pull off its own international-level Rienzi. With Odyssey Opera, it seems that in Boston we can now expect more.