BERLIN — Wagner's early opera "Rienzi" has a history of arousing strong emotions.
The composer himself came to despise it and banned it from performance at his Bayreuth shrine. But it was the favorite opera of no less a Wagner fanatic than Adolf Hitler, who owned the original manuscript and may have had it by his side when he died in his bunker in the closing days of World War II.
It's unlikely Der Fuehrer would look kindly on the new production of "Rienzi" that's playing at the Deutsche Oper of Berlin. Director Philipp Stoelzl has turned the title character from a 14th-century Roman tribune into a 20th-century fascist demagogue in an Alpine country that could easily be Germany.
In case the point isn't clear, Stoelzl plays extensive film footage of Rienzi haranguing the adoring populace; invents a swastika-like flag emblazoned with the letter "R," and even provides a bunker for Rienzi to hide in with his sister, Irene. Oh, and she has blond hair like Eva Braun and exchanges long kisses with her brother that are far more than sisterly.
This is all too much for some of the hometown audience. At Wednesday night's performance, the fourth in the run of six, boos mixed with cheers both at the first-act curtain and at the conclusion.
But since "Rienzi," adapted by Wagner from a best-selling novel by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, is rarely staged and is far from a masterpiece, it's hard to fault Stoelzl for taking a daring approach. And some of it is undeniably clever. The overture, the most familiar part of the score, borrows a page from Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" to show a young Rienzi (who looks more like Mussolini than Hitler) dreaming at his desk. The actor playing the role becomes inspired by the music, first waving his hand as if to conduct, then running around the stage turning somersaults and cartwheels in his exuberance, and finally imagining flying high above the globe to dominate the world.
Unfortunately, Stoelzl, who also directed the current mountain-climbing film "North Face" as well as Madonna's "American Pie" music video, is forced to rewrite large chunks of the plot to fit his concept.
Most blatant is the scene in which Rienzi pardons the nobles after they have tried to assassinate him. In the original, the episode creates sympathy for Rienzi as a well-meaning if misguided and indecisive leader. In Stoelzl's version, the so-called pardons are nothing more than photo ops for a cynical Rienzi to have his picture taken with each of the nobles, who are then led off to be summarily executed.
Wagner was only 32 when he completed the opera, his third. It originally ran nearly five hours, but the composer authorized a version half that length that proved highly popular during his lifetime. The score, bombastic but tuneful, is in the style of the French grand opera made popular by Giacomo Meyerbeer, a composer Wagner came to detest. But it also has music that points directly to the great romantic works Wagner would write in the following years, "Der Fliegende Hollaender" "Tannhaeuser" and "Lohengrin."
Musically, the Deutsche Oper production, presented here as part of a festival of Wagner operas, did the young composer proud. The best singing came from American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in the "trousers" role of Adriano, son of the nobility who falls in love with Irene. She poured out impressive volumes of golden sound all night and made one wish her role had not been trimmed. In the punishing title role, German tenor Torsten Kerl provided heldentenor-quality singing, and saved the best for last with a beautiful rendition of his big aria, "Allmaecht'ger Vater" ("Almighty Father"). Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund coped well with daunting high notes in the thankless role of Irene.
The chorus, directed by William Spaulding, got a huge and deserved ovation for its yeoman work all night. The splendid orchestra was conducted with vigor by Sebastian Lang-Lessing.