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. (The title is commonly shortened to Rienzi.) Written in 1840, it was first performed at the Hofoper, Dresden on October 20th, 1842.
The first performance was well received despite running over six hours (including intermissions). Later, Wagner experimented both with giving the opera over two evenings and making cuts for performance in a single evening.
Rienzi is Wagner's third opera, and is mostly written in a French Grand Opera style, inspired by Meyerbeer and Fromental Halévy, which seems conventional in comparison with what Wagner later wrote. For this reason, and because of the opera's sheer length, Rienzi is rarely performed today, and has never been performed at the Bayreuth Festival. Wagner later saw the work as an embarrassment, but it remained one of his most successful until his death. An ingenious staging at the English National Opera in London, produced by Nicholas Hytner in the 1980s, placed the hero in the context of 20th century totalitarianism.
The opera concerns the life of Cola di Rienzi, a 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 has earlier 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.
During his young adulthood, the future Nazi dictator, Adolf Hitler, witnessed a performance of Rienzi in his home town of Linz in Austria. He confided to a childhood friend, who had seen the opera with him, that "This was where it all began", meaning his plans for Germany and its people, implying that he saw himself very much in Rienzi's shoes as being the head of not just his country, but a vast empire like that of the Romans and the ancient Greeks.
Complete recordings (and performances) of Rienzi are rare, although the overture is regularly found on radio broadcasts and compilation CDs. All major recordings of Rienzi include significant cuts to the score.