Das Liebesverbot opens the new season at Teatro Verdi in Trieste

At the outset it should be said that as Das Liebesverbot has so
seldom been staged since its disastrous premiere in Magdeburg nearly 180 years
ago, this was more a case of re-birth than resurrection. Reportedly after word
had got around that the opera was echt Abfall, only three people
turned up to the second performance and Richard Wagner (who was 23 at the time)
virtually disowned his own composition and insisted that it must never be
performed in the sacred Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Apart from some
extremely vague musical foretastes of Die Meistersinger von N¸rnberg
(the orchestral introduction and postlude to Isabella’s So sei’s!
scena in Act II); Lohengrin (Mariana’s Lafl mir die Tr‰ne
meine Trost
in Act I) and evenDie Walk¸re (Isabella’s
Herbei! Herbei! Ihr Leute! in Act II),Das Liebesverbot
doesn’t sound like a Wagner opera at all. It seems more like a pastiche of
demented-Donizetti (the Ha, welcher Lust, er ist gefangen duet between
Friedrich and Isabella and subsequent ensemble at the end of Act I could have
come straight out of Don Pasquale) and roughhouse Rossini (lots of
ha ha ha’s and tralala’s). There are also traces of
youthful Carl Maria von Weber Singspiel and ever-present manic
tarantella music. In fact Wagner wrote this three hour grofle komische
as an ‘idiomatic’ Italian score full of ersatz-Sicilian
rhythms ( feuriger sizilianischer Charaktertanz), rapid patter-songs,
endless acciaccature and pizzicati, foot-tapping syncopation,
break-neck allegri furiosi passages and curious
Zingari percussion effects. Clearly any opera which is scored in the
first four measures for only castanets, tambourine and triangle is definitely
un po’ strano — especially in 1836.

With a text based loosely on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure,
Wagner’s own libretto is as undistinguished as his partitura. Trite
dialogue and strained rhyming couplets (Gott, welche Frechheit nehm’ ich
wahr/Jetzt wird die Sache spasshaft gar!)
sound more like post-adolescent
Teutonic doggerel than gracious strophes of Goethe. Despite several tiresome
diversions (such as the absurd character of Ponzio Pilato) the plot concerns
the attempted imposition by the unpopular and duplicitous German regent
Friedrich of a strict edict banning the good people of Palermo from enjoying
their usual pastimes of drinking, whoring, masquerading and (heaven forfend)
non-marital love. (Die Liebe, Carneval und Wein f¸r immer streng verboten
) This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t for the fact that
any breach of these draconian measures was to be punishable by death.
Fortunately all’s well and that ends well and apart from Friedrich, who is
duly exposed as a vile hypocrite, scoundrel and liar, the status quo
is joyously returned in the rousing finale with almost all characters
hoofing and high-kicking across the stage in outrageous drag.

It was a rather courageous decision of Teatro Verdi’s highly
personable Sovrintendente e Direttore Artistico
Claudio Orazi to enter into a joint production with the Leipzig Oper
and Bayreuther Festspiele to open the 2014-2015 Season in Trieste with
such an operatic rarity. At least in terms of audience reaction on the opening
night, his decision was more than justified. Smiles and cheers all round.
Although several of the production’s principals had previously sung in
Leipzig and in the Oberfrankenhalle in Bayreuth (definitely not in the
Festspeilhaus), the conductor Oliver von Dohn·nyi (not to be confused
with Christoph) was new to the staging but nevertheless managed to navigate the
unrelenting rhythms and frantic presti between orchestra, stage and
chorus with commendable precision and impressive leggero clarity. The
more lyrical moments of the partitura (which were indeed scarce) such
as the piano espressivo second subject for strings in the overture and
the accompaniment to Mariana’s scena in Act II were played with
sensitivity and an agreeably sonorous string tone. The brass section was
consistently impressive and the capable percussionists had a busy evening.

The lead role of Isabella (a savvy nun who leaves the convent to rescue her
wrongly condemned brother from Friedrich’s clutches) was sung by American
soprano Lydia Easley. Isabella is musically at least, a prototype for future
Sentas, Isoldes and even Br¸nnhildes. It is a huge sing with enormous vocal
demands and a punishing tessitura. The top ff Bb on
Gott gibt mir Kraft ihn zu vernichten dropping to low E natural in the
Act I duet with Luzio; the So sei’s! F¸r seinen feigen Wankelmut
aria in Act II finishing with an exposed top B natural on erk‰mpfen;
and the long, almost Verdian phrases in Du schm‰hest jene and’re Liebe
during the courtroom scena in Act I are but a few of
the terrors which Miss Easley managed to tame with considerable fortitude. In
this production she also needs to perform several soft-shoe shuffles and
high-kicks, so think Kirsten Flagstad as a Ziegfeld Follies hoofer.

As the model for a future Telramund or Alberich, the mono-dimensional
bad-guy role of Friedrich was confidently sung by Finnish baritone Tuomas
Pursio who also displayed a Jorma Hynninen-style lyric timbre when required.
Although slightly unfocused in Act I, hisJa, gl¸hend, wie des S¸dens
aria in Act II was much better sung. The confrontation with Isabella
in the Act I courtroom scene (Bedenke wohl, wer ich bin und wie du
) was so menacing it was easy to forget this was supposed to be a
grande opera comica.

Of the two leading tenors, the Luzio of Mark Adler had a ringing top, strong
middle voice and a convincing, affable stage presence, while the wrongly
imprisoned Claudio of Mikheil Sheshaberidze, with an ugly forced top and no
conception of phrasing, either Wagnerian or Sicilian, fully deserved any
punishment Friedrich could have inflicted. Of the smaller roles, the jilted
Mariana of German soprano Anna Shoeck was consistently excellent with an
especially agreeable piano cantilena in her Act II scena
Welch wunderbar’ Erwarten. As the perky Colombina character Dorella,
Francesca Micarelli was big on floozy and short on vocal expertise. The Ponzio
Pilato of Federico Lepre was the same without the floozy. As Dorella’s aging
libidinous admirer, the stock commedia dell’arte Zanni
figure of Brighella was sung by the experienced bass Reinhard Dorn. He
certainly milked the role for lots of cheap effects including some cheeky
comments to the orchestra before the courtroom scene. That said, his strong and
well-projected lower register showed why he has been a successful Fafner in a
number of European opera houses. The chorus, which plays an extremely prominent
role in the opera, was directed by maestro del coro Paolo Vera and
sang the difficult and usually fiendishly fast ensembles with real enthusiasm
and musical precision albeit less than perfect German diction.

The multiple recurring set designs by J¸rgen Kirner were sometimes
difficult to fathom (a huge wall of numbered safe deposit boxes for example)
but commedia dell’arte has little need for scenic verisimilitude.
The use of three enormous masks of Friedrich’s face when the populace
willfully flaunts the ban on masquerades was particularly effective, although
if Tuomas Pursio happened to be replaced by another singer, they may have made
less sense. The colourful costumes designed by Sven Bindseil, especially the
stylized bell-boy suits in the Act I courtroom scene and the outrageous
drag-show padded-bust frocks at the end, all added to the fun.

Whether this staging will encourage a plethora of new productions of Das
across the operatic world is probably unlikely. Despite
certain interesting moments, the work remains at best a curiosity item for
committed Wagnerites — and of course lovers of castanets.

Jonathan Sutherland

Cast and production information:

Friedrich: Tuomas Pursio, Luzio: Mark Adler, Claudio: Mikheil
Sheshaberidze, Antonio: Cristiano Olivieri, Angelo: Gianfranco Montresor,
Isabella: Lydia Easley, Mariana: Anna Shoeck, Brighella: Reinhard Dorn,
Danieli: Pietro Toscano, Dorella: Francesca Micarelli, Ponzio Pilato: Federico
Lepre. Conductor: Oliver von Dohn·nyi, Director: Aron Stiehl, Stage design:
J¸rgen Kirner, Costume design: Sven Bindseil, Lighting: Claudio Schmid, Chorus
Master: Paolo Vero. Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi di Trieste
18th December 2014.

image_description=Tuomas Pursio as Friedrich [Photo by Fabio Parenzan — Visualart Trieste]
product_title=Das Liebesverbot opens the new season at Teatro Verdi in Trieste
product_by=A review by Jonathan Sutherland
product_id=Above: Tuomas Pursio as Friedrich

Photos by Fabio Parenzan — Visualart Trieste