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The seats are brand new, the colours sparkling, the management in a state of chaos. Leipzig’s opera house opened again last Friday after a year-long, €9.5m renovation. Wagner’s Rienzi was on the programme, but chief conductor Riccardo Chailly was not on the podium. Henri Maier was in the audience, but he is no longer Intendant. And scenic leadership was borrowed from Paris, in the form of future Paris Opera director Nicolas Joel. He was roundly booed by the Leipzig audience for his production at the end of the evening.

Future leadership is not in sight, as Maier’s salary is to be paid in full until 2010, leaving the house with no budget for a replacement.

The news is not all bad. Axel Kober, representing Chailly in his absence as music director, had enough to say about Rienzi to make it an evening of interesting listening.

This was just as well, since Joel’s staging, such as it was, involved as much standing around as most concert performances.

Even trimmed down from its original six-hour length to a slender four, Rienzi (first performed in 1842) is a piece that needs a bit of dramatic help. Wagner wrote his own libretto, based on Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes, by the English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It was, by a large margin, his worst ever libretto, which is really saying something.

On the other hand, since Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night”, perhaps the blame should be shared.

Like a little-known album of revelatory family photographs, Rienzi is most fascinating for the clues it gives us about what Wagner later became. On the surface, it is grand opera, heavily indebted to Meyerbeer, firmly rooted in established forms. But within the sprawling framework, you can clearly hear harbingers of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, Der Fliegende Holländer and even Parsifal.

Rienzi himself is an ambivalent figure, the militant opponent of aristocratic militancy, murderous denouncer of murder, a violent soldier for peace.

Joel’s static production has first the aristocrats, then Rienzi’s henchmen dressed in 1950s gangster suits and ties (design: Andreas Reinhardt), with Men In Black-style sunglasses and plastic machine guns for added entertainment. It might have worked better if the singers did anything other than stand and sing at the audience. Rienzi himself dons full Roman armour and purple cape for a touch of creative anachronism, while Rome and the burning Capitol are represented by doll’s-house models on a drearily revolving stage.

Stefan Vinke does well in the almost unsingable title role, with unflagging power and flawless intonation. The sound is not colourful, the phrasing is wooden, and the prompt can be clearly heard shouting the text in advance, but the sheer technical accomplishment of seeing the evening out unscathed is laudable. Marika Schönberg delivers an ingenuous Irene, the sister so devoted to Rienzi that she dies with him in the flames.

Such incestuous passion could recall Siegmund and Sieglinde’s future tryst, but Joel leaves the siblings lonely and chaste. Elena Zhidkova brings a little excitement to the trousers role of Irene’s suitor Adriano, with a committed and limber account of the part. And the choir is simply sensational.

In the pit, the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra sounds comfortable with Kober, playing with its charactersitic warmth and burnish, even if the textures are seldom transparent and the woodwind intonation suffers as the evening wears on.

Overall, this is a fine way to hear Rienzi, even if there is nothing memorable to watch.

www.oper-leipzig.de

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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