Rienzi, The Last of the Tribunes
Sat, 29. May 2021, 19:30
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)
In a Rome wracked by the private interests and clan struggles of feuding aristocratic families the charismatic idealist Rienzi, leader of a group representing the citizenry, is working for liberty, justice and peace, intent on seeing Rome reclaim its past stature. He enjoys the trust of the Church and people. Although he declines the trappings of royalty he accepts the post of People's Tribune, nurturing “great thoughts in mind and heart” (Wagner). His consuming desire is to restore to the Rome he loves so dearly the internal peace and greatness of a bygone era. With the support and empowerment of the Church he pledges to work alongside a legislative senate to uphold the rights of the populace. However, the nobles' subordination to the new political system and its representative is feigned. A first assassination attempt on him is foiled and the ringleaders face the death penalty. Adriano, son of one of the conspirators and the lover of Rienzi's sister, is caught in the crossfire. He pleads with Rienzi to spare his father. Rienzi finally appeals to the people to join him in his decision to spare the lives of the assassins, and he prevails, but peace is short-lived. The nobles break the oaths of loyalty demanded from them by Rienzi and continue to agitate against the Tribune, who this time quells the unrest only at the cost of much bloodshed on both sides. The populace's loyalty to its Tribune is wavering. When Rienzi attempts to extend the power of Rome beyond the borders of the city the Church withdraws its support. This marks a turning point in Rienzi's fortunes; the saviour of the city becomes the scapegoat for Rome's woes. The people call for their one-time rallying figure to be stoned and burned. Before he dies Rienzi curses Rome and threatens to draw it down with him to share his doom.
RIENZI, Wagner's fourth opera, was the work that established his reputation. Long a popular work among audiences, RIENZI all but vanished from opera house repertoires after the Second World War. Hitler himself had made close associations between his own actual and envisaged biography and that of the eponymous hero and mentioned a performance of the opera in Linz in 1906 or 1907 as being the inspiration behind his later strivings. Posterity distanced itself from the work, unable to dismiss as trivial the parallels, despite the fact that the two figures were connected less in their biographical details as they were by a common vocabulary, a shared claim to power and redemption and a potential for violence that threatens to tip abruptly into an unbridled urge to destroy.
With his RIENZI Wagner, who took his material from the novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton “Rienzi, or The Last of the Tribunes”, is building musically and thematically on the French tradition of grand opéra while aspiring to outdo this genre in its music and on-stage action. The romantic notion of the lone, superhuman hero brought down by an uncomprehending society is already present in RIENZI. It forms the core of the cosmos developed by Wagner in his later works, a cosmos conceived for human beings and then endowed with an extravagant mythical dimension.
“I implore you to guard against destroying, with your own hands, everything about your fame that is admirable. No one but you can tear down the foundation on which your deeds are built; as you have laid this foundation so you can destroy it - the architect is always the best destroyer of his own work. You are fully aware of the path you trod to fame. The same path is descended on the return journey, and the downward gradient is easier to follow…
So, while there is still time, always be mindful of the words of the lad outside Terenzo. Weigh very carefully what you do, scrutinise your motives, think deeply, and do not deceive yourself over who you are, who you have been, where you come from, where you are going and how far one can go before losing freedom, nor over the position and office you have taken on, the hopes people have placed in you and the promises you have made: if you do all this you will see yourself not as master of the Republic but as its servant.” (Petrarca to Rienzo, Genoa 1347)
Opera in five acts
Poem by Richard Wagner, based on the novel
Rienzi, or The Last of the Tribunes by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
First performed on 20th October 1842 in Dresden
Premiered at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on 24th January 2010