Chelsea Opera Group Offers A Rare Chance to Hear Wagner’s Early Das Liebesverbot

26/10/2015

Wagner, Das Liebesverbot: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Chelsea Opera Group/Anthony Negus (conductor) Cadogan Hall, London, 25.10.2015. (JPr)

Das Liebesverbot

Cast included:

Helena Dix – Isabella
Kirstin Sharpin – Marianne
Elizabeth Cragg – Dorella
Peter Hoare – Claudio
Paul Curievici – Luzio
David Soar – Friedrich
Nicholas Folwell – Brighella
Toby Girling – Angelo
Piran Legg – Danieli

When I give my lectures on Wagner’s ‘Ring Road to Bayreuth’ it always creates great amusement when I relate how Das Liebesverbot (‘The Ban on Love’) – only his second opera – was premiered on 29th March 1836 and how the performance the next night was abandoned because of fistfights amongst the cast. It was never again performed in his lifetime. Bayreuth has created a cult about Wagner’s mature operas and ignores his first three – this one, Die Feen and Rienzi. Yet even though Das Liebesverbot is a hotchpotch of musical influences it is no less worthy of repeated hearing than some early works of other composers such as Mozart, Rossini, Bellini and Verdi – to name just four – that are more regularly given outings. However, if what I overheard is correct – and the person who said it should know – Das Liebesverbot will soon be seen at Covent Garden for the first time!

Wagner supposedly wrote how ‘I had chosen Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure which I now, in harmony with my present mood, transformed in a very free manner into an opera libretto and which I called Das Liebesverbot (‘The Ban on Love’). The ideas in the air at the time, combined with reading [Johann Heinse’s novel set in Italy] Ardinghello intensified by the particular mood which my operatic experience had put me into, supplied the keynote for my production. … What I was concerned about was to expose the sinfulness of hypocrisy and the unnaturalness of moral prudery.’

Wagner would go on to use legends and ancient mythology for his own political ends but actually begins doing this here with this (very) loose adaptation of Shakespeare. His own libretto does not focus on the duke but on Angelo, the deputy he has left behind to rule in his absence. The action is relocated to Sicily from Vienna but significantly Wagner turns Angelo into his transplanted German viceroy, Friedrich (the name of Wagner’s father). The plot is extremely convoluted but Jonathan Burton’s surtitles made it possible to keep abreast of the goings on. In order to uphold the standards of moral decency in Palermo, Friedrich bans the annual carnival, forbids the wearing of masks and is so determined to put an end to all acts of drunkenness and debauchery that he threatens those who would breach his edict with death. So right from only his second opera there are two themes here that would influence the rest of his oeuvre: power and love. Eventually Friedrich is revealed as a really nasty piece of work – possibly a proto-Alberich – and a total hypocrite as we learn how he has deserted his own wife, Mariana, and see him fall in love with a novice nun, Isabella. He then offers to spare the life of her brother Claudio, who is under arrest for fathering an illegitimate child, if she will have sex with him … though Wagner does not put it quite so bluntly as that! It gets more and more complicated but eventually Isabella orchestrates Friedrich’s comeuppance and he is reunited with his wife before a very suitable happy ending for all concerned.

What about the music? Well, Das Liebesverbot mixes elements of the Italian and French bel canto traditions with ‘borrowings’ from Mozart, Beethoven (Isabella calls Friedrich ‘Abscheulicher!’ from Fidelio) and Weber. Later Wagner himself reused elements from this opera: the plaintive strings at the start of the convent garden scene in Act I are heard in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin and there are a few occurrences of leitmotifs, with an especially recurrent one for the ‘ban on love’. The tone of the piece varies enormously during its trimmed two and a half hours from an air of bombastic grandiosity to ribald frivolity (as if Wagner had invented operetta) and back again.

Of course if it wasn’t for Chelsea Opera Group I would not have seen and heard the great Wagnerian, Anthony Negus, conducting Das Liebesverbot. However, I do think – now even more so than ever – that the time for concert performances such as theirs is coming to an end. The singers need to be much more dramatically engaged in what is going on and in a (basically) comic opera as this one, all the singers must know where the comedy is and be made to ‘act’ accordingly. It is no good some trying whilst the others have their heads in scores and all the characters who are interacting should be singing together on the platform … not on different sides of the conductor. Also why was English not used for the small amounts of dialogue?

I can imagine how hard it was to get a cast together for a rarity such as this and the eleven involved were a mixed bunch. Paul Curievici as Luzio, a young nobleman, actually was more theatrical than some of his colleagues but maybe this was to compensate for the fact that he could not manage all the notes of the role and his roistering carnival song at the start of the final scene was particularly uncomfortable. It was a shame because when he stopped trying to force too much he had a very pleasing tenor voice. Nicholas Folwell, was a power-hungry, authoritative, yet surprisingly humane, Brighella, the police chief. Peter Hoare was in eloquent voice as Claudio, another tenor role. This Das Liebesverbot struggled to get going and I only became really interested once David Soar’s Friedrich came into the ‘action’. He – a bass – was quite superb, singing with an assertive gravitas but always keenly aware of his character’s sense of inner turmoil over his public and private convictions/conflictions. Wagner gives him a ruminative aria in Act II Scene 2 which he clearly remembered when composing the role of the Dutchman in Der fliegende Holländer a few years later. Of the rest of the men, Julian Hubbard (another tenor) impressed as a servant Pontio Pilato.

There are only three roles for women – all sopranos – and to their credit they acted quite well. Helena Dix was a convincingly bold and assertive Isabella with a stage presence that suggested that this naïve novitiate could genuinely outfox a two-faced career politician. She had some steely top notes and some warm chest tones and faced the vocal challenges the composer sets her fearlessly head on – and we can already hear Senta, Elisabeth and Sieglinde in what he gives her to sing. Sadly, though Elizabeth Cragg portrayed an appealingly spunky and sexy Dorella, Isabella’s former maid, her voice was underpowered compared to her two female colleagues. Best of the trio was Kirstin Sharpin’s Mariana, her Weber-like canzonetta in the last scene ‘Welch wunderbar’ Erwarten’ was the one of the best musical moments of the whole opera and had a great depth of expression. It was a shame that Mariana has relatively little to sing so I look forward to hearing Kirstin Sharpin again sometime soon.

Anthony Negus conducted a rollicking account of the overture and the orchestra played splendidly throughout. His mentor, Reginald Goodall, was a singer’s conductor but I felt here that the soloists – thought evidently well-prepared – were left a little too often to fend for themselves and certainly were sometimes drowned by a wall of sound. However, some of the more refined and reflective passages were quite exquisite. The Cadogan Hall is clearly not a venue for a big orchestra nor a big chorus and latter did their best but rarely cut through the dense orchestration in the big crowd scenes. Nevertheless Anthony Negus’s energetic and stylish performance from those in front of him made a very strong case for Das Liebesverbot being heard much more often – so over to you Covent Garden!

Jim Pritchard

For more about the Chelsea Opera Group visit http://www.chelseaoperagroup.org.uk/.

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