Wagner and Paris: The Case of Rienzi (1869). Mark Everist

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 25 December 2017 | 4:22:00 am


The French reception of Wagner is often based on the two pillars of the 1861 Tannhäuser production and that of Lohengrin in 1891. Sufficient is now known about he composer’s earliest attempt to engage with Parisian music drama around 1840 to be able to understand his work on Das Liebesverbot, Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer, his editorial and journalistic work for Schlesinger, and his emerging relationship with key figures in Parisian musical life, Meyerbeer most notably. A clearer picture is also beginning to emerge of Wagner’s position in French cultural life and letters in the 1850s.

Wagner’s position in Paris during the 1860s, culminating in the production of Rienzi at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1869, is however complex, multifaceted and little understood. Although there were no staged versions of his operas between 1861 and 1869, the very existence of a successful Parisian premiere for an opera by Wagner in 1869 – given that there would be almost nothing for two decades after 1870 – is remarkable in itself. The 1860s furthermore saw the emergence of a coherent voice of Wagnérisme, the presence of French Wagnéristes at the composer’s premieres all over Europe and a developing discourse in French around them. This may be set against a continuing tradition of performing extracts of Wagner’s operas throughout the 1860s, largely through the energies of Jules Pasdeloup, who – as director of the Théâtre-Lyrique – was responsible for the 1869 Rienzi as well.
These competing threads in the skein of Wagner-reception in the 1860s are tangled in a narrative of increasingly tense Franco-German cultural and political relationships in which Wagner, his works and his writings, played a key role. The performance of Rienzi in 1869 is embedded in responses to the Prussian-Austrian war of 1866, the republication of Das Judenthum in der Musik in 1869 and the beginnings of the Franco-Prussian war.

Wagner and Paris: The Case of Rienzi (1869) Mark Everist

Any search for operatic crosscurrents in the second half of the nineteenth century eventually leads to a consideration of the relationship between Wagner and Paris.  Not only does this relationship problematize the questions of institution, genre and cultural transfer that characterises any import of foreign opera into the capital, but it is overlaid with polemic, scandal, individual amour propre competing with national pride, and music reflecting events on the larger world stage. It comes as no surprise that this is a subject that has been generously treated in accounts of nineteenth-century opera, at the expense – it could be argued – of the study of indigenous French products. 2 From the earliest French texts responding to Wagner’s Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde and his Oper und Drama in the early 1850s3 to the systematic engagement of some French composers with Wagnerian stylistic techniques in the 1890s and 1900s, 4 there is now a sufficient understanding of the subject, it might be thought, to be able to assemble a very clear idea of how the capital of the nineteenth century assimilated the composer. There seem to be two key points in the story of Wagner and Paris: the disastrous 1861 production of Tannhäuser at the Paris Opéra, and – thirty years later – the first successful production of the composer’s work there: Lohengrin in 1891.5 These two dates apparently bookend thirty years of Wagnerian silence in Paris, broken only occasionally by literary debates between Wagnéristes and less enthusiastic critics. But this received view of the Parisian reception of Wagner is marked by the almost complete absence of any account of an equally-important moment in Wagner-reception in Paris: the production of Rienzi that ran from 1869 to 1870. 6 Indeed, in the popular mythology that surrounds the understanding of the subject, the event has been ignored in favour of the production of Tannhäuser at the Paris Opéra in 1861.7 It is not hard to see why: twentieth-century German scholars were quick to identify the 1861 disaster as a Tannhäuser-Skandal as a way of explaining away the event as a largely Parisian aberration in a world in which the Wagner juggernaut had crushed most opposition. 8 And a really rather successful production of another opera by Wagner in 1869 that permitted a cooler, more sober, view of the composer in Paris, simply did not fit this historiographical trajectory

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