CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Ionarts-at-Large: Das Liebesverbot in Frankfurt

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.

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Das Liebesverbot,
S.Weigle / Frankfurt Opera
M.Nagy, C.Libor et al.

In an interview with Klaus Kalchschmid for the Friends of Bayreuth 2011 Almanac, baritone Michael Nagy looked forward to the rôle of the evening’s protagonist Friedrich in this production: “You can really lay into it. I only have one aria in the abridged version we perform, but of course there are many stimulating ensemble pieces. We’ll have a blast! I have the suspicion, though, that all these [three] early works of Wagner… are tailored to length: As if he set the time frame first and then filled the given duration at all cost. That compositional style by way of dimension – let’s call it ‘creative failure’ – seems to have been important for Wagner to get a feel for timing and musical focus. They’re all waypoints on the road to Tristan.”

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.

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Das Liebesverbot,
W.Sawallisch / BStOp Orchestra & Chorus
S.Hass, R.Schunk, H.Prey

Had they had supertitles, like at Frankfurt’s Alte Oper (the “Old Opera” house that has been converted into a concert hall), they would have known that it’s a perennially topical piece about Sicilian Governor Friedrich (assuming power during the Emperor’s absence), a moralizing do-gooder who knows best what is good for others and consequently outlaws hanky-panky, fornication, and the local carnival in one fell swoop: Big government, proudly legislating bedroom behavior since… always. Apart from being a kill-joy, Friedrich is also a flagrant hypocrite and he makes Isabella a very indecent proposal: Release of her brother Claudio from death row (which is where premarital excursions got him) in return for a nocturnal hands-on tryst. In the medieval equivalent of being caught on tape, he eventually has to eat humble pie, go through the ritual public apology, and is re-united with his estranged wife Mariana. Wagner, with overtones of “Elliot Spitzer, the Opera”.

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.