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A Wagner Premiere - After 172 Years

Alice Busch Theater
07/22/2008 -  and 28 July, 2*, 10, 14, 16, 22 August
Richard Wagner: Das Liebesverbot
Claudia Waite (Isabella), Mark Schnaible (Friedrich), Ryan MacPherson (Luzio), Richard Cox (Claudio), Holli Harrison (Mariana), Juliet Petrus (Julia), Lauren Skuce (Dorella), Kevin Glavin (Brighella), Joseph Gaines (Pontio Pilate), Zach Borichevsky (Antonio), Todd Boyce (Angelo), Robert Kerr (Danieli), Philip E. Thurman (Dancer/Acrobat)
Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Corrado Rovaris (Conductor)
Nicholas Muni (Director), John Conklin (Sets), Kaye Voyce (Costumes), Mark McCullough (Lighting), Sandra Stanton (Choreographer)

This hectic production is the first North American full staging of the work Wagner wrote when he was 23, adapting Shakespeare’s bitter comedy Measure for Measure. The play is deemed to be one of the bard’s “problem plays” and it is no surprise that the opera as well has certain problems. One of them is length (one of the indicators of the Wagner-to-be). The running time at Glimmerglass is just short of three hours (with one interval), and to achieve this a few cuts have been made.

Wagner made bold changes to the Shakespeare work. In the original, the Duke of Vienna turns his government over to one Angelo, then returns in the guise of a friar in which capacity he both observes and manipulates the unfolding plot. Wagner reduces this lead role to a wordless walk-on at the end of the opera, and puts more emphasis on the central female role, that of Isabella. Thus it is she who comes up with the plot’s central racy twist. He also switched the setting from Vienna (which functions in the play as merely a place name anyway) to Palermo. Wagner thus presents us with the comic spectacle of a puritanical German (renamed Friedrich) trying to control the sexual activities of anarchic, hedonistic Sicilians.

The plot: Friedrich enforces a ban on illicit love (“Das Liebesverbot”) in Palermo. The first casualties of the crackdown (and sentenced to death) are Claudio and his pregnant girlfriend, Julia. Claudio has a pious sister, Isabella, who is a novice in a nunnery. She is persuaded to petition Friedrich on her brother’s behalf. He agrees to release the brother if Isabella agrees to spend the night with him. Her outrage at his hypocrisy is heightened by the fact that a fellow novice, Mariana, is the unhappily spurned wife of Friedrich. Isabella hatches a plot: she agrees to the assignation, but in the darkness Mariana takes her place. The night of love reconciles Friedrich to his wife and the revelation of his hypocrisy causes the collapse of the ill-conceived liebesverbot.

Director Nicholas Muni sets the work in the 1950s. The text frequently mentions people meeting “in the Corso” (i.e., the street), but instead we are presented with a nightclub called “Il Corso”. To further play up the Sicilian aspect of the work, Muni has characters constantly brandishing handguns at one another and this gets tiresome.

Another directorial touch is to have the cloistered Mariana accompanied by her little daughter (in a nunnery?). This serves to emphasize Friedrich’s caddishness (not only has he abandoned his wife, but his child as well) to the point of overkill. The opera ends with a musical flourish to herald the return of the Sicilian ruler (to music reminiscent of that heralding the arrival of Don Fernando in Fidelio). Muni cuts the character out entirely (no loss) and uses the music to accompany Julia going into labour and giving birth. This is gruesomely funny, very much in keeping with the tone of both play and opera.

Muni makes good use of John Conklin’s two-tiered unit set based on Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. With twelve solo roles plus chorus there is a lot of business to stage and everything comes across clearly. Conductor Corrado Rovaris draws a colourful, vibrant performance from the orchestra and cast. The overall look of the production is very dark (no hint of the sunny side of Sicily) but this is in keeping with the darkness of its comedy.

The role of Isabella is a “big sing” as they say in the music business, and Claudia Waite pretty much rises to the occasion. (She has also sung Turandot - it’s that kind of role.) Her transformation from a demure novice to fashionista petitioner is amusingly done (although the pink dress she is given to wear while meeting Friedrich is remarkably unflattering). She must handle two big confrontations in close succession, first with Friedrich when he propositions her, and then with her brother. This latter scene is full of changing emotions. She tells Claudio what Friedrich has demanded and declares that her honour is simply not for negotiation. He then sings a self-congratulatory aria confirming his preference for (his) death over her dishonour. However, he has immediate second thoughts about it - after all, she is going into a nunnery where any previous transgressions will be forgiven. She is outraged at his calculating attitude and storms away without telling him of her plan.

As Claudio, Richard Cox displays a strikingly attractive voice; one looks forward to hearing him in the youthful Wagnerian roles. Mark Schnaible (bass-baritone) is a strong Friedrich who really puts across the hard, unyielding side of the character. Ryan MacPherson makes a terrific impression as the go-between (and outspoken advocate of - let’s face it - plain old lust), Luzio. This tenor role has some of the most lively music in a very animated score. Shakespeare’s character Pompey (another outspoken advocate of lust) is here renamed Pontio Pilato (one wonders what was going through the young Wagner’s mind) and Joseph Gaines gives a vivid portrayal. Also giving strong performances are Kevin Glavin as the restive jailor, Brighella, and Lauren Skuce as party-girl Dorella.

It is a pity that Wagner abandoned this work after its initial (disastrous) performance. With second thoughts he might have had Isabella come up with her bright idea after her confrontation with her brother instead of before it. As it stands, she appears downright callous in leaving him to think there is absolutely no hope for him and Julia.

This opera has never been deemed Bayreuth-worthy and I can understand why. The Wagner we know is very much at the embryo stage, but one hears hints of the artist to come moreso than in his next work, Rienzi. Overall, the music sounds more Italian than German, but with influences from Beethoven. To my ears, there are passages that hearken forward to Tannhäuser, staged a full nine years after this work (and after the two intervening operas, Rienzi and Der Fliegende Holländer).

Das Liebesverbot is very much a stretch for the Glimmerglass Festival that, given their 900-seat venue, specializes in light- to medium-weight works, and this is their first Wagner work. I can think of at least one opera company (Pacific Opera Victoria, in British Columbia) that frequently takes on works that are theoretically beyond its capabilities, but generally with positive results, and this is what has happened here. It would be interesting to see if this production creates a North American beachhead for the piece and whether other companies with a penchant for the unusual pick it up. It has its dramaturgical problems, but so do many works in the established canon. This work is of more than passing interest for anyone bent on exploring the Wagner oeuvre.

Michael Johnson



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