“Rienzi” – opera that made Wagner famous – returns to Riga

“Rienzi” – opera that made Wagner famous – returns to Riga
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04-12-2013 A+ A-
Directed by Kirsten Delholm, Richard Wagner’s opera “Rienzi. Rise and Fall” or in this case – more of an opus – on 19 January, 2014, is going to be one of the main public opening events from the programme of Riga as the European Capital of Culture in 2014. This piece was selected by no mistake as Wagner begun writing this opera, which later made the composer world famous, during the time he lived in Riga – from August of 1837 till July of 1839. The first two acts were composed in Riga and the last three – in Paris. Since 1878, when “Rienzi” was first staged in Riga, the opera has never been completely played-out in this city.

Engels was inspired as well

The persona of Cola di Rienzi – a late medieval Italian populist figure, a people’s tribune – was very interesting to many in the 19th century, when the English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote his novel “Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes” in 1835. In the novel, Bulwer-Lytton tried to shed new light on this persona. The piece served as source of inspiration to Wagner and his opera. The novel’s hero had a little to do with the actual populist figure, who live in Rome in the 14th century.

The novel’s main prototype’s last name was changed from Rienco to Rienzi and, despite the fact that Rienzi’s political career was crushed, he still served the national and also republican movement. In this context, the name “republican” most likely cannot be used in the same sense as “republican” in the USA; Roman republicans fought for the chance to overturn the monarchic regime and to establish bourgeois countries or republics. Rienzi was interesting not only because he was a people’s tribune, but also because any of the revolutionary movements tried to obtain their power and energy from the mighty Roman history, recalling its powerful past.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that not only this influential English author, but also Friedrich Engels discussed the subject of “Rienzi” and in 1840, being only 20 years old, created a piece of drama, focusing on Rienzi.

Unlike Bulwer-Lytton, Engels was more interested in the downfall of the tribune and his power, not his rise and becoming a people’s tribune; he explained his fall with the lust for power and opportunism. In other words, Wagner and Bulwer-Lytton idealized Rienzi.

One chapter closed with “Rienzi”

Mikus says that focusing on writing operas, the 26-year-old Richard Wagner came to Riga in 1837 to become the city’s first theater’s chapel-master. He had read Bulwer-Lytton’s novel (in Summer) already and decided that he wants to write an opera. He wrote the wordbook in Riga, but started composing the music in 1838 – the structure and idea was born in this city.

Some of the themes that Wagner composed in Riga, emerge in the famous ouverture that is played around the world. Furthermore, in the novel’s adaptation, the composer’s theatric intuition and the desire to achieve success can be observed already.

It also falls under the condition that Wagner chose to write the opera in the most popular genere for that time – the grand historic French opera or “grand opéra”.

Specific of this genere is the five act structure, applied by Wagner as well [though, the 2014 Latvian National Opera production is to have only two acts, as the producers/creators of the piece have decided to leave in only the most interesting musical excerpts – edit.], the rise and downfall of the career. Also, the grand opera form allowed, as well as encouraged placing individualities against masses – the opera’s power source.

This part of Wagner’s life is also mentioned in musicologist, professor Vita Lindberga’s article “Richard Wagner’s years in Riga”, allowing a glance into behind the  opera’s domestic creation process: “(..) I was observing how the first rough drafts of “Rienzi” are made and gradually, at the piano, I heard the emerging scenes. (..) Frequently bearded Russians stopped at the front of the house, located at the outskirts of Saint Petersburg, when they heard hellish noises coming from the upper stories, as in such concerts, the strings of the grand piano flew in every direction like ashes in the wind, and, in the end, the composer made only a fan-like, stiff rattle and, for that matter, on the resonator board, the metallic snakes, which were lying all around, created a war-like sound…”


In 1839, leaving Riga, Wagner hoped and was convinced that “Rienzi” would be premiered in Paris, where it could gain global acclaim, as at that time, Paris was considered (if such terms may be used) as the European Capital of Culture. In Paris, his plans did not come true, therefore Wagner begun writing “The Flying Dutchman”, but already in 1842, the offer came to stage “Rienzi” in Dresden. There, as he himself wrote, experienced one of the biggest triumphs in his life, but already during the premiere on 20 October, 1842, he felt that by writing “Rienzi”, he has settled accounts with the previous stage of his life; he felt that this opera was a toll for the audience’s sense of taste.

After the composer understood that he has to take a new path, therefore, starting with “The Flying Dutchman”, he tried to establish a new type of opera. Wagner’s last written wish was that “Rienzi” is an opera that cannot and must not be performed at Bayreuth – only his operas, beginning from “The Flying Dutchman”, may be performed in Bayreuth. On the other hand, in honor of Wagner’s two hundredth anniversary, a “Rienzi” concert play was performed at Bayreuth, though not on the festival’s theater stage, but in a separate hall. The decision was also purely based on technical reasons – the Bayreuth Festival Theatre is not built for such operas as the “grand opéra”, as they hold a great importance in appearances from the side curtains. The Bayreuth Festival Theater, taking into account the acoustic requirements, does not have a side curtain, play participants enter and exit the stage from the back. Therefore Wagner’s vision is technically impossible to be played-out. The Latvian National Opera does not have any problems to technically carry out the play.


“Rienzi” for the first and only time in Riga was performed in January of 1878, but the author himself did not take part in the premiere. For the first Riga city theater, where Wagner worked at as a chapel-master, “Rienzi” was too grand of an opera; to be specific, the theater house was too small for such performance. Many other Wager’s operas were already produced at the theater, including “The Flying Dutchman”. After that, Wagner’s “Rienzi” has not been performed or produced in Riga, therefore next year’s production will be another attempt at performing this Wagner’s opera.

Becomes source of inspiration to the Third Reich

Another fact is interesting as well – at that time, in the 19th century, Rienzi was considered to a character of popular culture, as well as Wagner offered listeners music, which allowed to easily identify with the main hero. The young Adolf Hitler, who in 1905, in Linz, saw and heard the opera, was so inspired by it that afterwards he decided – if he ever got the chance, he will most definitely promote the art of opera and the respective performances. It is also known that Hitler’s love for Wagner was expressed through him fanatically collecting Wagner’s opera scores, as well as he was presented with the score from “Rienzi”. The fact is mentioned also because Hitler was obsessed with Wagner’s operas and he especially liked “Rienzi”.


According to the musicologist, it may seem surprising that Hitler himself identified as a people’s tribune, who at the end, crashed and was destroyed. As it is known, it actually happened to him in real life… Obviously some elements of his political ideologies Hitler adopted from Wagner’s operas, especially “Rienzi”. The piece already early held an important place in the nationalist propaganda – “Rienzi’s” ouverture was played at congress openings. It became the unofficial anthem of the Third Reich and part of the liturgy.

During the conversation, king Ludwig II of Bavaria is mentioned, as he also called Wagner his most favorite composer, yet the musicologist points out that the king’s most beloved opera was “Lohengrin” and he identified himself as the swan king, building beautiful castles in Neuschwanstein and Linderhof. According to historic sources, Hitler considered himself to be a physical reincarnation of Cola di Rienzi. Wagner most certainly is the most famous composer who has ever wisted Riga and has also worked here. He is the person that connects Latvia closely to Western European culture. Therefore, it is only obvious that specifically this piece has been selected for the opening of the European capital of culture.


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