Running up to the Wagner bicentennial which they will crown with a repeat of their Ring Cycle, the Frankfurt Opera is putting on a trilogy of early-Wagner concert performances: Die Feen (The Fairies) last year, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) this year, Rienzi next year—all recorded to be released on the Oehms label that has been taking constructive advantage of the Frankfurt company’s characteristically smart programming.
Summarizing Wagner’s second opera: the opportunity to hear the music is considerably more rewarding than the music itself. Less Wagner in Wagner is impossible. The music is a wild medley of excited faux folk bits that could be of Italian and French origin (Verdi, Bellini, Rossini, you name it) and whose German provenance would scarcely be guessed if the libretto – loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure – weren’t in German.
One could say it also reminds of Meyerbeer, except that would be a lie since no one knows Meyerbeer well enough to be actually reminded of him. Looking and hearing hard enough might further reveal Marschner, Beethoven (Fidelio), and even Wagner (!), but those are musicological, rhetorical points none of which are likely to surface during the first or even fourth impression. The overture sounds like something that might have fallen off the truck during the composition of a proto-Carmen. (Even if Bizet himself was not created until four years after Das Liebesverbot.) And the body count is zero—a feat achieved only in Wagner’s other ‘light comedy’, Die Meistersinger.
R.Wagner, Das Liebesverbot,
S.Weigle / Frankfurt Opera
M.Nagy, C.Libor et al.
At its first performance, the opera’s title didn’t make it through the censorship office (hence the subtitle “The Novitiate from Palermo”), unlike the libretto itself which the censor didn’t bother to fully read. (Understandably so.) Much of it is oddly conversational, especially for Wagner, with its share of light humor, awkwardness (“my dearest love-antipode”), and calculated laugh-out-loud lines, such as the comically self-deprecating zinger: “What a kiss! And the governor should deny me that? To hell with his ban on love. If he can resist that, he’s German alright…” Effective, as the Frankfurt audience proved, still today. It’s funny (as they say), because it’s true. But there are remarkable aspects to its content, too, namely the simultaneously timid and aggressive expression of Wagner’s revolutionary sentiment. Wagner’s irascible, anarchic Sicilians in Das Liebesverbot explicitly call for the governor’s laws to be burned to ashes (oy!), but then they throw a welcome party to the returning emperor. A dozen years later in Dresden, close buddies with arch-anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, Wagner hosted a rebel-fighters’ weapons cache in his backyard—and proceeded to write a treatise on the ideal monarch as the protector of the desired liberties. Perhaps it was for the better that the audience at the Magdeburg premiere was so lost on the plot, that—as per Wagner’s own account—no one had an idea of what they had just seen.
R.Wagner, Das Liebesverbot,
W.Sawallisch / BStOp Orchestra & Chorus
S.Hass, R.Schunk, H.Prey
The leading rôles Friedrich and Isabella were soundly cast with Michael Nagy and Christiane Libor, the latter the only one in the ensemble to have sung her part before. It showed: Libor gloriously led a searing trio of fantastic ladies which also included Anna Gabler’s Mariana, and Anna Ryberg’s Dorella. With dramatic flair the latter made the most of a rôle that is to Das Liebesverbot what Papagena is to the Magic Flute. Sonorous and secure, Nagy led the cast among the men, along with tenor Peter Bronder’s nicely projected, cheekily acted, but not very nimble Luzio and bass Thorsten Grümbel’s Brighella who, but for a few raspy notes, showed that he can work his broad register at any volume he chooses. Only tenor Charles Reid as Claudio seemed indisposed with a knotty gargled voice that improved, but not enough, over the course of three hours.
The grateful audience gave music director Sebastian Weigle and his Opera Orchestra the due credit they deserved for performing such a modest play-it-twice-and-never-again score so committed and passionately.
There are operas in the repertoire with more convoluted plots, clumsier librettos, and choppier music, but since Wagner set the bar so much higher for his own work, there is no use pretending that Das Liebesverbot is unjustly neglected. That doesn’t contradict the fact that it’s justly revived every once in a while. If it comes around again in 2033 (the Sesquicentennial of Wagner’s death) that’s fine; for the occasional Liebesverbot-fix in between the new recording (or Sawallisch’s from 1983, on Orfeo) should do nicely.