NEW YORK — One of his most popular works during the composer's lifetime, Wagner's early opera "Rienzi" still has the power to ignite strong feelings today.
The epic-length account of a 14th-century tribune who seeks to return Rome to its former glory was also a favorite of Adolf Hitler's, who saw the hero as an embodiment of his own mad dreams of power.
So it was with some embarrassment that one of Germany's leading opera companies, Deutsche Oper Berlin, discovered recently that it had scheduled a performance of the work for April 20, the date celebrated by the Nazis as Hitler's birthday. In response to complaints from company members, the date has now been shifted.
There was no such controversy surrounding the presentation of "Rienzi" in concert Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall by the Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by the group's founder, Eve Queler.
But even in a flawed performance, "Rienzi" sets the pulse racing, and it was easy to see why it might foster grandiose thoughts. The score — which looks back to Bellini and ahead to later Wagner — is filled with rousing marches, romantic melodies, elaborate choruses for men, women and children, and extended fanfares for the brass.
By far the best singing was offered by Geraldine Chauvet, a French mezzo-soprano who was making her U.S. debut as the young nobleman Adriano. This "trousers" role — a throwback to a tradition Wagner would never use again — contains some stirring music as Adriano wrestles with the conflict between loyalty to his family and love for Rienzi's sister, Irene. Chauvet made the most of her opportunities, displaying warm, passionate tone, supple phrasing and ease in handling the many passages that took her to the top of the mezzo range.
As Irene, Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos fearlessly unfurled high notes up to C-sharp. British tenor Ian Storey struggled in the daunting role of Rienzi, a pronounced wobble marring much of his delivery. He made it through his big aria, "Allmacht'ger Vater" ("Almighty Father"), but only barely.
The orchestra, supplemented by an offstage band, played with enthusiasm if not always precision. There were terrific contributions from members of the New York Choral Ensemble and children from Vox Nova of the Special Music School.
"Rienzi," — which ran six hours at its 1842 premiere and 3½ hours in the abridged version used Sunday — has long been a favorite of Queler's, who presented it twice in the early 1980s and again in 1992. Her conducting may have been a bit too four-square to bring out all the opera's sweep and power, but her advocacy of this neglected work is commendable.