About this work
Richard Wagner composed his third opera, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Roman Tribunes) under dire financial, professional, and personal circumstances. The failure of his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, at its only performance in 1836 in Magdeburg, set Wagner in flight from his creditors. He went first to Berlin in an unsuccessful effort to arrange performances of Das Liebesverbot, and later joined his lover Minna Planer in Königsberg. There Wagner and Minna married, but promises of a conductorship did not materialize, and pressure from Wagner's creditors forced Minna to flee in desperation to her parents' Dresden home. Wagner finally accepted a position at the opera house at Riga, where Minna returned to him in October 1837. It was in Riga, amidst the French and Italian operas he was charged with conducting, that Wagner began composing Rienzi. However, further attempts to avoid his debts halted his compositional work; it was not until his term in a Parisian debtor's prison in 1840 that he was able to complete the project.
Rienzi was Wagner's musical response to G.N. Baermann's German translation of Bulwer-Lytton's 1835 novel on the fourteenth century Cola di Rienzi, and possibly also to Mary Russell Mitford's 1828 play on the same theme. It was first premiered in Dresden on October 20, 1842. Modern audiences cannot now hear performances of this "original" Rienzi: Wagner made many cuts in his lengthy opera for the 1845 edition of the score and the autograph score has fallen into oblivion. It is possible that Adolf Hitler, to whom the autograph was presented by the President of the Reichsarbeitskammer in 1839, was the last person to know its whereabouts. John Deathridge has noted that most of the twentieth century performances of Rienzi have been based on a score (published in 1898-99) which Cosima Wagner and Julius Kniese manufactured -- by making numerous unauthorized cuts and stylistic alterations to the music and drama -- with the intention of converting it from a French opera and into a Wagnerian music-drama.
The music of Rienzi reveals, at every turn, Wagner's efforts to compose a fashionable "Parisian" opera. Wagner relied heavily on closed forms (most notably the ternary aria form) in structuring individual numbers, and often extended the closed-form idea to a larger-scale level to include whole sections of scenes. The influence of French grand opera is also evident in the scope of the work, which is extraordinarily large. Impossible to stage in anything but the largest of theaters, it includes huge military processions and crowd scenes that would have made Meyerbeer proud.
Curated by Julian Sarmiento, Double bassist