1840: Wagner Rienzi Overture

FRIDAY, July 31, 2020

Rienzi Overture: 1840

Rienzi, der letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the last of the tribunes) is an early opera by Richard Wagner in five acts, with the libretto written by the composer. Rienzi is Wagner’s third completed opera, and is mostly written in a grand opera style. The time of composition is hard to determine. Written between 1837 and November 1840, it was first performed in 1842. The full score of Rienzi was completed on 19 November 1840. It was Wagner’s first success.

Wagner never wrote a final, official version…

Rienzi was never established by the composer into a finalized version. Overall it is not possible to accurately reconstruct Wagner’s “original” Rienzi because Rienzi was never clearly finished by the composer.

It was more than six hours long…

The first performance of Rienzi was well received in Dresden despite running over six hours (including intermissions). I love this next part, even if it is not true. It’s a great story:

One legend is that, fearful of the audience departing, Wagner stopped the clock above the stage.

Subsequently, Wagner experimented with presenting the opera over two evenings and making cuts to enable a more reasonable performance in a single evening.

From very popular to seldom performed…

Despite Wagner’s reservations, Rienzi remained one of his most successful operas until the early 20th century. However, since then only the the overture has remained highly popular, so there was a total reversal as audiences became more and more enthusiastic about his later operas.

Wagner turned against his own composition:

Wagner later perceived Rienzi as an embarrassment.  Cosima Wagner recorded Wagner’s comment in her diary for 20 June 1871:

Rienzi is very repugnant to me, but they should at least recognize the fire in it; I was a music director and I wrote a grand opera; the fact that it was this same music director who gave them some hard nuts to crack – that’s what should astonish them.



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