Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (WWV 49) (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes) is an early opera by Richard Wagner in five acts, with the libretto written by the composer after Bulwer-Lytton's novel of the same name (1835). The title is commonly shortened to Rienzi. Written between July 1838 and November 1840, it was first performed at the Hofoper, Dresden, on 20 October 1842, and was the composer's first success.
The opera is set in Rome and is based on the life of Cola di Rienzi (1313–1354), a late medieval Italian populist figure who succeeds in outwitting and then defeating the nobles and their followers and in raising the power of the people.
Magnanimous at first, he is forced by events to crush the nobles' rebellion against the people's power, but popular opinion changes and even the Church, which had urged him to assert himself, turns against him. In the end the populace burns the Capitol, in which Rienzi and a few adherents have made a last stand.
Rienzi is Wagner's third completed opera, and is mostly written in a grand opera style; depictions of the mob, the liberal ethos associated with the hero and the political intervention of a reactionary clergy recall La vestale, Les Huguenots, and also Fromental Halévy's La Juive.  Each act ends with an extended finale ensemble and is replete with solos, duets, trios and crowd scenes. There is also an extended ballet in Act II according to the accepted Grand Opera format. Hans von Bülow was later to joke that "Rienzi is Meyerbeer's best opera".
Wagner began to draft the opera in Riga in 1837, after reading Lytton's novel. In 1839, meeting Meyerbeer by chance in Boulogne, he was able to read the latter the first three acts of the libretto, and to gain his interest. Meyerbeer also introduced Wagner to Ignaz Moscheles, who was also staying at Boulogne; as Ernest Newman comments, this was "Wagner's first meeting with real international musical celebrities". When the opera was completed in 1840, Wagner had hoped for it to be premiered at the Paris Opéra.
Several circumstances, including his lack of influence, prevented this. Moreover, Wagner's wife Minna, in a letter of 28 October 1840 to Wagner's friend Apel, who had likely first made the suggestion that Wagner compose Rienzi, mentions a plan to perform the overture to Rienzi "a fortnight hence", but contains a clear indication that her husband had just been committed to a debtors' prison. The full score of Rienzi was completed on 19 November 1840.
In 1841 Wagner moved to Meudon, just outside Paris, where the debt laws could be more easily evaded, whilst awaiting developments for Rienzi, having already written to King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, requesting that he order a production of the work in Dresden.
With the support of Meyerbeer, a staging of Rienzi was arranged in Dresden; Meyerbeer wrote to the Director of the Opera in Dresden, Baron von Lüttichau, that he found the opera "rich in fantasy and of great dramatic effect". This, with the proposed staging of The Flying Dutchman in Berlin, also supported by Meyerbeer, persuaded Wagner to return to Germany in April 1842. During rehearsals the performers were highly enthusiastic; the tenor Tichatschek, in the title role, was so impressed with a passage from Act III (later deleted because of the opera's length), that 'at each rehearsal, each of the soloists contributed a silver groschen to [a] fund that Tichatschek had started ... No one suspected that what was an amiable joke for them was the means of buying [Wagner] an extra morsel of sorely-needed food'.
The premiere of Rienzi took place on 20 October in the new Dresden Opera House, designed by the architect Gottfried Semper and opened on 14 April 1841. Semper and Wagner were later to become friends in Dresden, a connection which eventually led to Semper providing designs which became a basis of Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.
The first performance of Rienzi was well received in Dresden despite running over six hours (including intermissions). One legend is that, fearful of the audience departing, Wagner stopped the clock above the stage. In his later memoirs, Mein Leben, Wagner recalled:
No subsequent experience has given me feelings even remotely similar to those I had on this day of the first performance of Rienzi. The only too well-founded anxiety as to their success has so dominated my feelings at all subsequent first performances of my works that I could never really enjoy them or take much notice of the way the audience was behaving.[...] The initial success of Rienzi was no doubt assured beforehand. But the uproarious way in which the public declared its partiality for me was extraordinary ... The public had been forcibly predisposed to accept it, because everyone connected with the theatre had been spreading such favourable reports ... that the entire population was looking forward to what was heralded as a miracle ... In trying to recall my condition that evening, I can remember it only as possessing all the features of a dream.
Subsequently, Wagner experimented with giving the opera over two evenings (at the suggestion of von Lüttichau), and making cuts to enable a more reasonable performance in a single evening.
Despite Wagner's reservations, Rienzi remained one of his most successful operas until the early 20th century. In Dresden alone, it reached its 100th performance in 1873 and 200th in 1908 and it was regularly performed throughout the 19th century in major opera houses throughout Europe and beyond, including those in America and England in 1878/9. Recent productions have been rare, in part because of the large forces required and the work being so atypical of "received" Wagner to contemporary audiences.
The US premiere took place on 4 March 1848 at the Academy of Music in New York and was followed on 27 January 1879 by the first UK performance at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. A staging at the English National Opera in London, produced by Nicholas Hytner in 1983, placed the hero in the context of 20th-century totalitarianism. A production by David Pountney at the Vienna State Opera in 1999 set the work in the "near future". Of this production Pountney wrote:
- Wagner invested the musical realization of Rienzi with the unashamed extravagance and tasteless exaggeration of a Las Vegas hotel ... only the self-consciously deliberate and unabashed use of kitsch could match this musical egomania.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 20 October 1842
(Conductor: Carl Gottlieb Reissiger)
|Cola Rienzi, Roman Tribune||tenor||Josef Aloys Tichatschek|
|Irene, his sister||soprano||Henriette Wüst|
|Steffano Colonna, a nobleman||bass||Georg Wilhelm Dettmer|
|Adriano, his son||soprano||Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient|
|Paolo Orsini, another patrician||bass||Johann Michael Wächter|
|Raimondo, Papal Legate||bass||Gioacchino Vestri|
|Baroncelli, Roman citizen||tenor||Friedrich Traugott Reinhold|
|Cecco del Vecchio, Roman citizen||bass||Karl Risse|
|The Messenger of Peace||soprano||Anna Thiele|
|Ambassadors, Nobles, Priests, Monks, Soldiers, Messengers, Populace|
The opera opens with a substantial overture which begins with a trumpet call (which in Act 3 we learn is the war call of the Colonna family) and features the melody of Rienzi's prayer at the start of Act 5, which became the opera's best-known aria. The overture ends with a military march.
Outside Rienzi's house
The patrician Orsini and his cronies attempt to kidnap Rienzi's sister Irene. Stefano Colonna, also a patrician but inclined to support Rienzi, prevents them. Raimondo appeals to the parties in the name of the Church to stop their fighting; Rienzi's eventual appearance (marked by a dramatic key shift, from D to E flat) quells the riot. The Roman people support Rienzi's condemnation of the nobles. Irene and Adriano realise their mutual attraction (duet Ja, eine Welt voll Leiden (Yes, a world of sorrows)). A gathering crowd of plebeians, inspired by Rienzi's speeches, offers Rienzi the crown; he demurs, insisting that he wishes only to be a Tribune of the Roman people.
A hall in the Capitol
The patricians plot the death of Rienzi; Adriano is horrified when he learns of this. Rienzi greets a group of ambassadors for whom an entertainment (a lengthy ballet) is laid on. Orsini attempts to stab Rienzi, who however is protected by a vest of chain-mail. Adriano pleads with Rienzi for mercy to the nobles, which Rienzi grants.
The Act 2 ballet is noteworthy as Wagner made a clear attempt to make it relevant to the action of the opera (whereas in most Grand Operas the ballet was simply an entertaining diversion). The Rienzi ballet was intended to tell the tale of the 'Rape of Lucretia'. This storyline (in which Tarquinius, the last king of Rome, attempts to rape the virtuous Lucretia), parallels both the action of Rienzi (Orsini's attempt on Irene) and its background (patricians versus the people). In its original form the ballet lasts for over half an hour – in modern performances and recordings it is generally drastically cut.
The Roman Forum
The patricians have recruited an army to march on Rome. The people are alarmed. Rienzi rouses the people and leads them to victory over the nobles, in the course of which Adriano's father Stefano is killed. Adriano swears revenge, but Rienzi dismisses him.
Before the Lateran Church
Cecco and other citizens discuss the negotiations of the patricians with the Pope and with the Emperor of Germany. Adriano's intention to kill Rienzi wavers when Rienzi arrives together with Irene. Raimondo now announces that the Pope has laid a papal ban on Rienzi, and that his associates risk excommunication. Despite Adriano's urgings, Irene resolves to stay with Rienzi.
Scene 1: A room in the Capitol
Rienzi in his prayer Allmächt’ger Vater (Almighty Father!) asserts his faith in the people of Rome. He suggests to Irene that she seeks safety with Adriano, but she demurs. An apologetic Adriano enters and tells the pair that the Capitol is to be burnt and they are at risk. 
Scene 2: The Capitol is ablaze
Rienzi's attempts to speak are met with stones and insults from the fickle crowd. Adriano, in trying to rescue Rienzi and Irene, is killed with them as the building collapses.
In the original performances, Rienzi's final words are bitter and pessimistic: "May the town be accursed and destroyed! Disintegrate and wither, Rome! Your degenerate people wish it so." However for the 1847 Berlin performance Wagner substituted a more upbeat rhetoric: "Ever while the seven hills of Rome remain, ever while the eternal city stands, you will see Rienzi's return!".
Reception and performances
Wagner later perceived Rienzi as an embarrassment; in his 1852 autobiographical essay, A Communication to My Friends, he wrote "I saw it only in the shape of 'five acts', with five brilliant 'finales', with hymns, processions and the musical clash of arms". 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.
Thus the work has remained outside today's Wagner canon, and has never been performed at the Bayreuth Festival. Although the composer disclaimed it, it can be noted that Rienzi prefigures themes (brother/sister relationships, social order and revolution) to which Wagner was often to return in his later works.
The success of Rienzi – his first real success of any kind – was crucial in Wagner's career, launching him as a composer to be reckoned with. It was followed, within months, by his appointment as Kapellmeister at the Dresden Opera (February 1843), which also gave him considerable prestige. It also received critical acclaim elsewhere in Europe. The young Eduard Hanslick, later to be one of Wagner's foremost critical adversaries, wrote in 1846 in Vienna:
I am of the firm opinion that [Rienzi] is the finest thing achieved in grand opera in the last twelve years, that it is the most significant dramatic creation since Les Huguenots, and that it is just as epoch-making for its own time as were Les Huguenots, Der Freischütz, and Don Giovanni, each for its respective period of musical history 
Other critical comments though the ages have included (apart from von Bulow's jibe about it being 'Meyerbeer's best opera'), 'Meyerbeer's worst opera' (Charles Rosen), 'an attack of musical measles' (Ernest Newman) and ' the greatest musical drama ever composed' (Gustav Mahler).
Rienzi and Adolf Hitler
It has been claimed that Adolf Hitler was so influenced by seeing Rienzi as a young man in 1906 or 1907 that it triggered his political career, and that when his boyhood friend August Kubizek reminded Hitler, in 1939 at Bayreuth, of his eager response to the opera Hitler had replied, "At that hour it all began!". The historicity of that account is disputed.
Hitler possessed the original manuscript of the opera, which he had requested and been given as a fiftieth birthday present in 1939. The manuscript was with Hitler in his bunker, from which it was either stolen or lost, so that its present whereabouts are unknown.
Thomas Grey comments:
In every step of Rienzi's career – from ... acclamation as leader of the Volk, through military struggle, violent suppression of mutinous factions, betrayal and ... final immolation – Hitler would doubtless have found sustenance for his fantasies.
The original performance version of Rienzi was lost in the Dresden bombing of 1945, and the manuscript (that it was based on) was lost in Berlin in 1945. No full copies had been made of either manuscript, as far as it is known. However, Rienzi was never frozen into a finalized version, so all performances of it since 1945 have been reconstructions.
The only existent copy of Rienzi is based on Wagner's draft composition, in the form of a vocal score. The early 1840s draft composition remains as the only existing primary source. Two surviving full scores made in Dresden in the early 1840s (under Wagner's supervision) already reflect the heavy cuts made in performances. The first printed score that was made under Wagner's supervision in 1844 reflects even heavier cuts.
A critical edition of the opera was prepared by Schott's in Mainz in 1976 as volume III of their scholarly complete edition of Wagner's works. This edition was edited by Wagner scholars Reinhard Strohm and Egon Voss; it uses the extant sources but also contains the 1844 piano version prepared by Gustav Klink, (which includes some of the passages excised from early performances).
Overall it is not possible to accurately reconstruct Wagner's "original" Rienzi, but Rienzi on the other hand was clearly never finished by the composer. It was constantly being altered during the 1840s (and, it seems, possibly throughout Wagner's lifetime), so it is not feasible to fully determine Wagner's exact or final intentions based on existing evidence.
Complete recordings (and performances) of Rienzi are rare, although the overture is regularly found on radio broadcasts and compilation CDs. Significant cuts to the score are common in recordings. Rienzi was released on DVD in 2010. The production was directed by Philipp Stölzl, and performed by the Deutsch Oper Berlin, with Torsten Kerl in the title role.
- Josef Krips conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Set Svanholm, Walter Berry, Christa Ludwig, Alois Pernerstorfer, Paul Schöffler. 1960 (Melodram).
- Heinrich Hollreiser conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle. René Kollo, Siv Wennberg, Janis Martin, Theo Adam. 1975 (EMI). (Complete recording of Wagner's shortened 1843 version)
- Edward Downes conducting the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra. John Mitchinson, Lorna Haywood, Michael Langdon, Raimund Herincx. 1976 (Ponto POCD1040) (Complete and uncut recording of Wagner's "original" 1842 version)
- Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra. René Kollo, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Cheryl Studer, John Janssen. 1983 (Orfeo d'Oro)
Recordings of the overture include: James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, Lorin Maazel conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
- Grey (2008), 35
- Newman (1976), I, 212
- Newman (1976), I, 269
- Millington (1992b)
- Newman (1976), I, 302–3
- Newman (1976), I, 313
- Meyerbeer (1975), 341
- Meyerbeer (1975), 386
- Newman (1976), I, 340; see also Wagner ((1992), 229
- Feustel ((1998), 19
- Gutman (1990), 86
- Wagner (1992), 231
- Newman (1976), I, 345
- Holden, p. 1023
- Charlton (2003), 137–138]
- Operabase.com list of performances since 2009
- Wagnerjahr-2013, accessed 10 July 2013
- Charlton (2003), 139
- A sound clip of Rienzi's prayer can be found on YouTube: Rienzi's prayer sung by Max Lorenz, 1941
- Strohm (1976), 725
- cited in Charlton (2003), 328
- cited in Millington (1999), 10
- Newamn (1976), 351–353
- cited in Chartlon (2003), 332
- Deathridge, (1983), 546
- Score downloadable from IMSLP.
- Joachim Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, pp.22-23
- Karlsson 2012, 35–47.
- Vaget, (2003), 122
- Millington (1992a), 276
- Grey (2008), 36
- Strohm (1976), 726
- Millington (1992a), 223–4
- Recordings on Rienzi on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- The New Kobbé's Complete Opera Book (11th edition), 1997.
- Charlton, David (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Grand Opera, Cambridge, 2003
- Deathridge, John, "Rienzi...A Few of the Facts", The Musical Times vol. 124 no. 1687 (September 1983), pp. 546–549
- Feustel, Gotthard, Episoden aus der Semperoper, Leipzig, 1998
- Grey, Thomas S. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Wagner, Cambridge, 2008
- Gutman, Robert W., Wagner: The Man, His Mind and His Music, New York, 1990.
- Holden, Amanda (ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam, 2001. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
- Karlsson, Jonas, "'In that hour it began'? Hitler, Rienzi, and the Trustworthiness of August Kubizek's The Young Hitler I knew", The Wagner Journal, vol. 6 no. 2 (2012), 33–47.
- Meyerbeer, Giacomo, ed. H and G. Becker, Briefwechsel und Tagebücher, vol III (1837–1845), Berlin, 1975
- Millington, Barry, The Wagner Compendium, Faber, 1992a.
- Millington, Barry, "Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen", in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Stanley Sadie (1992b). Accessed via Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, 26 December 2009.
- Millington, Barry: "Rienzi: an opera in the grand style", programme notes to EMI Classics recording (Staatskapelle Dresden, Heinrich Hollreiser), 1999.
- Newman, Ernest, The Life of Richard Wagner, (4 volumes), Cambridge, 1976.
- Strohm, Reinhard, "Rienzi and Authenticity", The Musical Times Vol. 117, No. 1603 (September 1976), pp. 725–727.
- Vaget, Hans Rudolf, The political ramifications of Hitler's cult of Wagner, Hamburg, 2003. Accessed 29 December 2009.
- Wagner, Richard, tr. Andrew Gray, My Life, New York, 1992
|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen.|
- Media related to Rienzi at Wikimedia Commons
- Synopsis from Stanford University
- Complete text of Bulwer-Lytton's Rienzi at Project Gutenberg.
- MIDI recording of the overture
- Rienzi: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project