Richard Wagner might be delighted to know that his “Ring” cycle is still performed to audiences of passionate devotees around the world. He might be shocked, though, to know that “Rienzi,” his third opera and one of his most popular throughout the 19th century, is hardly performed at all today. And he might be equally shocked to find out that the National Philharmonic, in partnership with the Wagner Society of Washington, offered the opera in concert at Strathmore on Saturday night with its six hours cut to less than 2
I’d wager that one feature of Saturday’s performance would have pleased Wagner, especially the singing of tenor Issachah Savage in the title role. Far too often, singing in Wagner is equated with barky, half-shouted delivery, but Wagner, even though he wrote roles that can be sung only by the largest and most freakish of voices, wanted them sung in bel-canto style. And Savage — a Catholic University graduate whom I first heard in the Washington Chorus’s Wagner concert in 2012 and whom some remembered from an early outing as Cassio in a Summer Opera “Otello” about 10 years ago — has that rarest of instruments: a large voice of melting beauty. He wielded it with ease and grace through a long night of singing, marshaling his energy wisely so that he had plenty to give where it counted, especially the Act V prayer, the evening’s showpiece. At times, he could have had more of an effect, or connected his bright, full top notes better with the passages that followed, but he’s got a voice that makes you want to hear more of it — and the night belonged to him.
It didn’t necessarily belong to the conductor, Piotr Gajewski, though you have to applaud his enterprise in getting this thing onstage. “Rienzi” has more in common with its French grand-opera forebears than with Wagner’s future Gesamtkunstwerk (translated as total works of art). It features standard opera arias, duets, ensembles, a ballet that lasts a half-hour (mercifully not performed Saturday) and a lot of ravishingly pretty melodies. With Gajewski’s unvarying, mezzoforte conducting, though, the shortened version sometimes felt like six hours. The Washington Men’s Camerata and the National Philharmonic Chorale took a while to warm up; in the first couple of acts, it sounded as if they were having trouble figuring out where to come in, though they pounded out their music willingly in big choral pieces later on.
Radical cuts to a work can sometimes make it feel longer, because it can strip facets of the characters that help the audience understand and identify with the action. The character with the most to sing Saturday was Adriano, sung by mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Stewart, with a strident voice like a copper pipe — round, hard and hollow and going down to notable depths but without a lot of warmth or yielding. As Rienzi’s sister Irene (Adriano’s love interest), Eudora Brown had a slightly softer-grained instrument without a lot of range.
Jason Stearns was satisfyingly blustery as Paolo Orsini, and Kevin Thompson was stentorian in the best sense as Steffano Colonna, Adriano’s father. Unfortunately, both characters were executed at intermission, leaving us with the rather faceless Robert Baker and the emphatic bass-baritone Stephen Bryant, his body quivering with every note he sang, as the only supporting characters.
The opera is notable in not having a love interest for Rienzi, and less notable in setting up its protagonist’s inevitable death; he perishes in flames, prefiguring the end of the “Götterdämmerung” opera, written many years later. You can see that one next spring at the end of the Washington National Opera’s “Ring” cycle; hopefully you will be able to see and hear the gifted Savage many times in the future. As for “Rienzi,” it is likely to remain an amiable rarity, which will continually surprise with its beauties when exhumed. It was nice to have a chance to hear it.
The National Philharmonic’s season continues with an all-Bach program Oct. 31.