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Rienzi der Letzte der Tribunen; Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes

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Richard Wagner (born Leipzig, 2 March 1813; died Venice, 13 February 1883)


The composer.


Novel Rienzi, the last of the Roman Tribunes (1835), by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-73).



First performance: Dresden (Court Theatre), 20 October 1842.

First UK performance: London (Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket), 27 January 1879.

First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 1 May 1894.

Scottish Opera première: N/A.



Wagner’s third opera is rarely performed, with the exception of the overture, which is still popular in concerts. In later life, one of the many unattractive features of Wagner’s behaviour was his tendency to criticise both the person and the works of Meyerbeer (1791-1864), a German opera composer who had a strikingly successful career in Italy, and later in Paris, where he specialised in the production of five-act grand operas on historical themes, including Robert le Diable (1831), Les Huguenots (1836), Le Prophète (1849), and L’Africaine (1865). It seems fair to accuse Wagner of an element of hypocrisy in this, since Rienzi was clearly an attempt to emulate that success, and it was partly due to a recommendation by Meyerbeer that it was performed in Dresden at all. Performances and recordings today are always heavily cut, as usually happens with Meyerbeer, so it is difficult to assess the work’s true quality, since any structure is destroyed in heavily edited versions. In the twentieth century Rienzi has perhaps suffered even more from the idea circulated that it was Hitler’s favourite Wagner work. This has inevitably meant that modern directors, when they do stage it, tend to place orders for lots of jackboots and similar clichés of fascistic paraphernalia. It has never been performed at Bayreuth, though Wieland Wagner did direct it at Stuttgart in 1957.


Main Characters

Cola Rienzi, Roman Tribune and Papal Notary (tenor)

Irene, his sister, in love with Adriano (soprano)

Stefano Colonna, a patrician (bass)

Adriano, his son, in love with Irene (mezzo-soprano)

Paolo Orsini, a patrician (bass)

Cardinal Raimondo, Papal Legate (bass)


Plot Summary

The setting is Rome in the mid-fourteenth century, after the Pope’s departure to Avignon, when a struggle for domination persists between two patrician factions, the Orsinis and Colonnas. An attempt by Orsini to abduct Irene is foiled by Colonna and Adriano, and a fight ensues. Rienzi calms the crowd, but is enraged by the abduction attempt and, with Raimondo’s encouragement, seizes power and insists that the rebellious patricians swear loyalty to him as Tribune. They do so, but Orsini then tries to assassinate Rienzi, so the offending patricians are condemned to death. Adriano’s pleas lead to them being spared, but they rebel again, and in the ensuing battle his father, on the rebel side, is killed. Adriano now swears revenge on Rienzi and joins a plot to kill him. The mob’s loyalty to Rienzi is also short-lived.  When the Church excommunicates the Tribune only his sister remains loyal. Adriano now goes to Irene to warn her of the danger from the mob and persuade her brother to escape from Rome with her. She rejects Adriano and joins her brother at prayer in the Capitol. The mob set the building on fire, and as Rienzi and Irene are killed in the conflagration, Adriano rushes in to join them.

The Cast

 Colonna's son
 a Roman citizen
Cecco del Vecchio
 a Roman citizen
Cola Rienzi
 Roman Tribune and Papal Notary
 Rienzi's sister
Messenger of Peace
Paolo Orsini
 Papal Legate
Stefano Colonna

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