Richard Wagner was an expert at self-promotion. As he moved artistically toward “music drama”, it served his purpose to tout Der fliegende Holländer as a break with his three earlier operas, all ultimately excluded from the Bayreuth canon. Thus certified as unworthy, his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, a “grosse komische Oper”, was long shunned following its single, disastrous performance in 1836. It has never been professionally staged in America until now at Glimmerglass Opera.
Seeing it is a delightful and revelatory experience. Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) is sometimes compared to Bellini, a Sicilian composer. Indeed, Wagner, loosely basing his opera on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, shifted the action to Palermo and even took the side of Italian sensuality over German piety. Friedrich, a German temporarily ruling the city, orders a crackdown on immorality, which results in a death sentence on young Claudio for impregnating his fiancée. Claudio’s sister Isabella intervenes, but Friedrich requires her sexual favours for Claudio’s freedom. Isabella concocts a scheme for freeing Claudio while preserving her honour.
If the music often sounds Italianate, that’s the way things were in the 1830s. But it also sounds like Wagner, and not just when a theme associated with Elisabeth in Tannhäuser occurs verbatim. You sense the master at work in Isabella’s confrontation with Friedrich and in the abundance of ideas that take time to express.
Nicolas Muni’s updated production brings out the opera’s zest and adds much of its own. Isabella has moments of Senta-like intensity, which Claudia Waite delivers with riveting focus. Holli Harrison, as Friedrich’s jilted fiancée Mariana, and Lauren Skuce, the temptress Dorella, sing with lustrous soprano tones. Tenor Richard Cox handles the heroic dimension of Claudio’s music, and Ryan MacPherson, as Claudio’s friend Luzio, sings with a fine, ringing tenor. Also excellent were Mark Schnaible, as Friedrich (pictured), and Kevin Glavin as his comic flunky, Brighella. Corrado Rovaris conducts with verve.
Das Liebesverbot is part of an arresting quasi-Shakespearean season in which four operas occupy a John Conklin set reminiscent of The Globe.
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