Wagner’s Other Comedy Makes Merry DVD Debut

The production of Wagner’s ‘Das Liebesverbot’ at the Teatro Real, Madrid, in 2016, is preserved on a new DVD.
(Photo by Javier del Real)

Wagner: Das Liebesverbot. Christopher Maltman (bass-baritone), Peter Lodahl (tenor), Ilker Arcayürek (tenor), David Alegret (tenor), David Jerusalem (baritone), Manuela Uhl (soprano), Maria Miró (soprano), Ante Jerkunica (baritone), Isaac Galán (baritone), Maria Hinojosa (soprano), Francisco Vas (tenor), Kasper Holten (stage director), Janos Darvas (director for the screen). Coro y Orquesta Titulares del Teatro Real, Madrid, Ivor Bolton (conductor). Opus Arte OA BD7213D or OA1191D. Blu-ray or DVD (reviewed on Blu-ray)

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — Although Richard Wagner wrote 13 operas (the Ring counts as four), we only hear ten of them regularly, a great batting average — better than Verdi or Mozart as opera composers go — but still not the whole story. One of the three “missing” operas is Das Liebesverbot, which incredibly has just received its very first video recording. And watching this enjoyable early work by a genius prompts an inevitable question: where has it been all these years?

One of Wagner’s two “comedies” — the other being Die MeistersingerDas Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) is the result of a 21-year-old composer’s attempt at an Italian opera in the style of the times, albeit sung in German. Its under-rehearsed first performance in 1836 flopped, and the second performance was called off when a fight broke out backstage between the lead tenor and the lead soprano’s jealous husband. After that fiasco, Wagner moved on, and the piece vanished. The U.S. had to wait until 2008 for the first fully staged domestic performance, at Glimmerglass. Bayreuth didn’t touch it until 2013, and just a handful of recordings, mostly air checks and all but one heavily cut, exist. The sole complete recording, a 1976 BBC broadcast led by Edward Downes, was only available on bootleg LPs for a long time; Deutsche Grammophon licensed it for its complete Wagner opera box four years ago.

The opera has a lot going for it — as long as you accept it on its own terms and don’t expect the Wagner of Der fliegende Höllander and onward. Right away as a young man, Wagner was thinking big, and as a result, the opera is a little long for its material. Yet a good deal of the score is delightful, sounding like a mash up of Donizetti, Rossini, and Weber and hardly at all like the Wagner we know.

Christopher Maltman sings the role of Friedrich.

The overture is dominated by a boisterous, rollicking tune that is repeated in the Act II bacchanal; it telegraphs that we’re in for a good time. There is a sense of orchestral weight that you don’t find in the bel canto works of the period, and one of the vocal parts, that of Isabella, requires dramatic heft that is ahead of its time, anticipating the later operas. Once in a great while, a few direct premonitions of the future can be detected: a passage after the opening duet of Act II breathes Der fliegende Höllander, and there is a Tannhäuser moment in one of Isabella’s recitatives. The piece works well when performed by a young, spirited, well-trained ensemble cast, as it did in an excellent performance by USC Opera (only the second one in the U.S.) that I saw during Los Angeles’s 2010 Ring Festival.

Building on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Wagner moved the locale south from Vienna to Palermo, Sicily, where Friedrich, a German surrogate for the absent local King, decrees that all public displays of love are to be forbidden, on penalty of death. After a series of plot complications, the public eventually rebels against authority, Friedrich is exposed as a hypocrite, and all of the male leads get their girls, which doesn’t happen too often in opera. Asked to surrender her body for awhile to a tyrant in order to free a loved one, Isabella could be an ancestor of Tosca — or perhaps a descendant of Fidelio‘s Leonora.

This video recording — emanating from the Teatro Real, Madrid, in 2016, and also not 100% complete — breezily whisks Das Liebesverbot into present-day Palermo, where director Kasper Holten gets to press some pop-culture buttons. Carnival is celebrated beneath a gaudy mix of dollar and euro signs, hearts, and cocktail glasses sculpted in neon, and when love is made illegal, the set becomes gloomy and chaste. Two nuns (Isabella and Mariana) snack on chips, the paparazzi run around with camcorders and mobile devices. Isabella and her imprisoned brother Claudio communicate with smartphones in Act II (are prisoners allowed to have smartphones?), and even Friedrich — at first a smug, bespectacled bureaucrat yet later revealed in Act II as a mama’s boy complete with a teddy bear — becomes a texting fool. All of that is O.K.; no serious violence is done to the text.

For the cognoscenti, Holten gets off some Wagnerian in-jokes in the costuming — like the Lohengrin swan on Friedrich’s helmet when he goes a-courting and the steerhorns on the heads of some of the partying carousers in Act II. And as a final Germanic jest at the close (spoiler alert!), the mute returning King turns out to be Angela Merkel (uh, isn’t the King supposed to be Sicilian?). I gather this means that the carousing citizens of Palermo haven’t seen the last of austerity.

Manuela Uhl portrays Isabella.

Conductor Ivor Bolton’s pit band in Madrid is not first-rate — the players audibly improve as the opera goes on — while the chorus is a bit ragged (one wonders how much rehearsal they had with this unfamiliar score). Christopher Maltman sings Friedrich sonorously, and Manuela Uhl, despite a vibrato that nearly wavers out of control (and pitch) early on, has enough weight in her voice to credibly negotiate Isabella’s demanding part. The others meld into an ensemble cast of consistently lively acting and variable vocal quality. Chris Walton’s booklet notes are unusually entertaining and irreverent — referencing Merkel, the Broadway musical Hair, sexual matters, etc.

Indeed, this is a young person’s opera — after all, a young person full of testosterone wrote it — and its theme of Sicilian la dolce vita overcoming the wintry Puritanism of the North should resonate with the young-in-spirit everywhere.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.