Music by Richard Wagner to his own libretto after William
Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
First Performance: 29 March 1836, Stadttheater, Magdeburg.
|Friedrich, the King of Germany’s Viceroy in Sicily||Baritone|
|Luzio, a young nobleman||Tenor|
|Claudio, a young nobleman||Tenor|
|Antonio, their friend||Tenor|
|Angelo, their friend||Bass|
|Isabella, Claudio’s sister||Soprano|
|Brighella, captain of the watch||Bass|
|Danieli, an innkeeper||Baritone|
|Pontio Pilato, a bawd||Tenor|
Setting: Palermo, 16th Century.
The town square
An unnamed king of Sicily leaves his country for a journey to Naples and
hands over to the appointed Regent Friedrich full authority to exercise the
royal power in order to effect a complete reform in the social habits of his
capital, which had provoked the indignation of the Council. The servants of the
public authority busily shut up or pull down the houses of popular amusement in
a suburb of Palermo, and carry off the inmates as prisoners. The populace
oppose this first step, and much scuffling ensues.
Luzio, a young nobleman and juvenile scapegrace, seems inclined to thrust
himself forward as leader of the mob, and at once finds an occasion for playing
a more active part in the cause of the oppressed people on discovering his
friend Claudio being led away to prison. From him he learns that, in pursuance
of some musty old law unearthed by Friedrich, he is to suffer the penalty of
death for a certain love escapade in which he is involved. His sweetheart,
union with whom had been prevented by the enmity of their parents, has borne
him a child. Friedrich’s puritanical zeal joins cause with the
parents’ hatred; he fears the worst, and sees his only hope for mercy if
his sister Isabella, by her entreaties, can melt the Regent’s hard heart.
Claudio implores his friend at once to seek out Isabella in the convent of the
Sisters of St. Elizabeth, which she has recently entered as novice.
Isabella is in confidential intercourse with her friend Marianne, also a
novice. Marianne reveals to her friend, from whom she has long been parted, the
unhappy fate which has brought her to the place. Under vows of eternal fidelity
she had been persuaded to a secret liaison with a man of high rank. But
finally, when in extreme need she found herself not only forsaken, but
threatened by her betrayer, she discovered him to be the mightiest man in the
state, none other than the King’s Regent himself. Isabella’s
indignation finds vent in impassioned words, and is only pacified by her
determination to forsake a world in which so vile a crime can go unpunished.
When now Luzio brings her tidings of her own brother’s fate,
Isabella’s disgust at her brother’s misconduct is turned at once to
scorn for the villainy of the hypocritical Regent, who presumes so cruelly to
punish the comparatively venial offense of her brother, which, at least, was
not stained by treachery. Her violent outburst imprudently reveals her to Luzio
in a seductive aspect; smitten with sudden love, he urges her to quit the
convent for ever and to accept his hand. She contrives to check his boldness,
but resolves at once to avail herself of his escort to the Regent’s court
Several persons are charged by the sbirro captain with offenses against
morality. The earnestness of the situation becomes more marked when the gloomy
form of Friedrich strides through the inrushing and unruly crowd, commanding
silence, and he himself undertakes the hearing of Claudio’s case in the
sternest manner possible. The implacable judge is already on the point of
pronouncing sentence when Isabella enters, and requests, before them all, a
private interview with the Regent.
In this interview she behaves with noble moderation towards the dreaded yet
despised man before her, and appeals at first only to his mildness and mercy.
His interruptions merely serve to stimulate her ardor: she speaks of her
brother’s offense in melting accents, and implores forgiveness. Friedrich
can no longer contain himself, and promises to grant her petition at the price
of her own love. Filled with indignation at such villainy, she cries to the
people through doors and windows to come in, that she may unmask the hypocrite
before the world. By a few significant hints, Friedrich, with frantic energy,
succeeds in making Isabella realize the impossibility of her plan. But a few
words on her part suffice to transport the Regent himself with ecstasy; for in
a whisper she promises to grant his desire, and that on the following night she
shall send him such a message as shall ensure his happiness.
And so ends the first act in a whirl of excitement.
Isabella visits her brother in his cell. She reveals Friedrich’s
shameful proposal to him, and asks if he would wish to save his life at the
price of his sister’s dishonour. Then follow Claudio’s fury and
fervent declaration of his readiness to die; whereupon, the unhappy man
declines from a state of melancholy to one of weakness. Isabella hesitates in
dismay when she sees him fall in this way. Disgusted, she springs to her feet,
and declares that to the shame of his death he has further added her most
After having handed him over again to his gaoler, her mood once more changes
swiftly to one of wanton gaiety. True, she resolves to punish the waverer by
leaving him for a time in uncertainty as to his fate; but stands firm by her
resolve to rid the world of the abominable seducer who dared to dictate laws to
She tells Marianne that she must take her place at the nocturnal rendezvous,
at which Friedrich so treacherously expected to meet her (Isabella), and sends
Friedrich an invitation to this meeting. In order to entangle the latter even
more deeply in ruin, she stipulates that he must come disguised and masked and
fixes the rendezvous in one of those pleasure resorts which he has just
To the madcap Luzio, whom she also desires to punish, she relates the story
of Friedrich’s proposal, and her pretended intention of complying with
his desires. This she does in a fashion so incomprehensibly light-hearted that
Luzio yields to a fit of desperate rage. He swears that, even if the noble
maiden herself can endure such shame, he will himself strive by every means in
his power to avert it. And, indeed, he arranges things in such a manner that on
the appointed evening all his friends and acquaintances assemble at the end of
the Corso, as though for the opening of the prohibited carnival procession.
Outside Friedrich’s Palace
At nightfall, Luzio appears sings an extravagant carnival song by which
means he seeks to stir the crowd to bloody revolt. When a band of sbirri
approaches, under Brighella’s leadership, to scatter the gay throng, the
mutinous project seems on the point of being accomplished. For the present,
however, Luzio prefers to yield and to disperse his followers, as he must first
of all win the real leader of their enterprise: for here was the spot which
Isabella had mischievously revealed to him as the place of her pretended
meeting with the Regent.
For Friedrich, Luzio therefore lies in wait. Recognizing him in an elaborate
disguise, he blocks his way and, as Friedrich violently breaks loose, is on the
point of following him with shouts and drawn sword when, on a sign from
Isabella, who is hidden among some bushes, he is himself stopped and led away.
Isabella then advances, rejoicing in the thought of having restored the
betrayed Marianne to her faithless spouse. Believing that she holds in her hand
the promised pardon for her brother, she is just on the point of abandoning all
thought of further vengeance when, breaking the seal, to her intense horror she
recognizes by the light of a torch that the paper contains but a still more
severe order of execution, which, owing to her desire not to disclose to her
brother the fact of his pardon, a mere chance had now delivered into her hand,
through the agency of the bribed gaoler.
After a hard fight with the tempestuous passion of love, and recognizing his
helplessness against this enemy of his peace, Friedrich has in fact already
resolved to face his ruin, even though as a criminal, yet still as a man of
honor. An hour on Isabella’s breast, and then — his own death by
the same law whose implacable severity shall also claim Claudio’s life.
Isabella, perceiving in this conduct only a further proof of the
hypocrite’s villainy, breaks out once more into a tempest of agonized
Upon her cry for immediate revolt against the scoundrelly tyrant, the people
collect together and form a motley and passionate crowd. Luzio, who also
returns, counsels the people with stinging bitterness to pay no heed to the
woman’s fury; he points out that she is only tricking them — for he
still believes in her shameless infidelity. Fresh confusion; increased despair
of Isabella; suddenly from the background comes the burlesque cry of Brighella
for help, who, himself suffering from the pangs of jealousy, has by mistake
arrested the masked Regent, and thus led to the latter’s discovery.
Friedrich is recognised, and Marianne, trembling on his breast, is also
Cries of joy burst forth all round; the needful explanations are quickly
given, and Friedrich sullenly demands to be set before the judgment-seat of the
returning King. Claudio, released from prison by the jubilant populace, informs
him that the sentence of death for crimes of love is not intended for all
times; messengers arrive to announce the unexpected arrival in harbor of the
King; it is resolved to march in full masked procession to meet the beloved
Prince, and joyously to pay him homage, all being convinced that he will
heartily rejoice to see how ill the gloomy puritanism of Germany is suited to
his hot-blooded Sicily.
[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]
Click here for the complete libretto.
image_description=Isabella by Francis William Topham (1808-1877) [Source: Wikipedia]
first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Das Liebesverbot
product_title=Richard Wagner: Das Liebesverbot
product_by=Friedrich: Raimund Herincx; Isabella: April Canielo; Lazio: Alexander Young; Claudio: Ian Caley; Mariana: Ilse Wolf; Brighella: Lawrence Richard; Antonio: Neil Jenkins; Angelo: William Elvin; Danieli: Leslie Fyson; Dorella: Elizabeth Gale; Pontio Pilato: David Lennox. BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and Singers. Edward Downes, conductor. Live performance Manchester, May 1976.