If there were ever a moment for a new opera company to make a big splash, it’s opening night. And so Odyssey Opera, one of the newest additions to the unstable yet inventive ecosphere that is Boston’s opera community, is preparing a concert version of Wagner’s third opera, “Rienzi,” as its inaugural production. According to the company, it is the work’s Boston premiere.
Yes, this year marks the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, and yes, the opera is almost never performed. Those are good reasons to do “Rienzi.” But make no mistake: Odyssey Opera is out to make a statement about its ambition. And some noise as well.
“There’s 200 people on stage involved in the performance of this,” said artistic and general director Gil Rose during a phone conversation on a rare day off from rehearsals. Actually, they’re not all on stage. Among the unusual challenges “Rienzi” presents are offstage bands and organs, trumpet calls that sound from a distance, and grand marches and processionals. Not to mention a huge orchestra and chorus, and 10 vocal soloists.
“The question isn’t, how hard is it?” Rose said when asked about the difficulties of putting the opera together. “The question is, how big is it? And it’s big and long. With a lot of moving parts.
“It’s going well,” he added. “I just kind of feel like Wagner’s always sitting on me.”
“Rienzi” is in five acts — “five long, strenuously noisy acts,” as a New York Times critic once wrote. It’s adapted from a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton set in 14th-century Rome, a city riven by two feuding families. Cola di Rienzi, a tribune, grandly pledges to unify the city, gaining the support of the people. His populist appeal, though, leads the city’s nobles to plot against him.
Eventually their machinations prompt the populace to revolt against Rienzi, and the former hero dies a rather extravagant death that involves both stoning and the burning down of the capitol building. Rose reported that one of the orchestra players said to him, “Boy, they kill him a lot at the end, don’t they?”
It would be easy to imagine such a flamboyant work being a massive flop at its first performance, the young composer’s fledging reputation going down in the same flames that consumed his tragic hero. But in fact, the 1842 premiere of “Rienzi” in Dresden was the greatest public success Wagner would know in his lifetime, despite the fact that the opera lasted more than six hours. (Odyssey Opera estimates that its performance will come in at about five hours, with a two-hour break for dinner in between.)
Wagner later disowned “Rienzi,” as he did two other early operas, and was chagrined by reminders of his early triumph. “His whole life,” Rose said, “people called him ‘the composer of ‘Rienzi’!”
Wagner seems to have thought of “Rienzi” as an apprentice work, written to demonstrate that he had mastered the operatic models that were available to him. The sequence of vocal pieces has much in common with Italian operas of the time, while the lavish yet precisely ordered spectacle owes much to French opera.
“Rienzi,” in other words, shows Wagner’s influences too clearly. But, Rose pointed out, it also has a self-propelling energy unlike anything Wagner would go on to write. “It has a kind of bite to it that a lot of Wagner’s chromatic music doesn’t have. There’s so much undulating in the music later on that it’s not as crisp. This is a flashy show — it’s all about the panache and the passion.”
Plus, he added, the opera offers a perspective on Wagner’s development unavailable elsewhere. “There are all these musical passages that are reminiscent of what he’s going to do soon but hasn’t done yet. As you go through the score, it’s like, there’s ‘Lohengrin’ coming, there’s ‘Tannhäuser’ coming, there’s ‘[The Flying] Dutchman’ on its way. All the seeds are planted.”
Another challenge to putting “Rienzi” on is the extreme difficulty of the title role, which “rides right in the hard part of most tenors’ range,” Rose said. “And, Wagner being the pleasant person that he was, he puts the most delicate singing for Rienzi at the beginning of the fifth act, after he’s been singing all night long. It’s really unfair.” Rose feels lucky that there have already been concert productions this year, creating a pool of singers with experience performing the role. Eventually, he came across Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt, who sang the role of Rienzi three months ago.
“Which is good, because it gives him three months to rest,” Rose cracked.
Toward the end of a conversation, Rose compared “Rienzi” with “Parsifal,” Wagner’s spacious, mystical, and very slow final opera. He remembered going to a performance of “Parsifal” in Berlin and saying to a friend, “We’re going to be here forever,” — “and we were,” Rose said.
This opera, by contrast, lacks what Rose called “that whole Wagnerian angst-and-drawn-out thing. That’s not how ‘Rienzi’ goes. It’s a firecracker — it flies off the page. I can guarantee anybody that comes that this will not seem like five hours.”
Plus, he added, “this has never played in Boston before, and if it ever does again, it won’t be in our lifetime.”