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Wagner's 'Rienzi'

Richard Wagner is known, with good reason, as one of the most innovative composers in the history of opera — and as one of the most long-winded.

Wagner's stated aim was to create something called a Gesamstkunstwerk, or "total work of art." The idea was to reach beyond traditional opera to achieve a seamless blend of music, drama, literature, visual art and stagecraft. How thoroughly Wagner succeeded in this is a matter of opinion, but he undoubtedly created a style of musical theater that had never been heard before.

In the process, he also created some of the longest works ever to hit the world's opera houses. Together, the four dramas of his Ring cycle last for more than 14 hours. The shortest of them, Das Rheingold, is 2 1/2 hours long — and has no intermission!

Ironically though, Wagner's longest opera is also one of his most traditional. It's the opera featured here, Rienzi, which in its original version clocks in at nearly five hours.

In Rienzi, a young Wagner took on the world of French "Grand Opera," a traditional form that typically featured five acts and as much spectacle as the stage could hold, including ballets, rousing processionals, huge choral numbers and special stage effects. Wagner embraced the tradition enthusiastically, saying that Rienzi should "outdo all previous examples with sumptuous extravagance." In the process he deliberately created an opera that only the largest theaters can hold. It ends with an entire building collapsing on stage, burying the principal characters alive!

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us a production of Rienzi from the Leipzig Opera, featuring the historic Gewandhaus Orchestra in the pit. And don't worry — it also happens to be a slimmed down version of the opera, tipping the scales at just over three hours.

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