First, you must dispel any thoughts that you are going to
experience anything aurally that sounds like the master’s, well,
Framing “Das Liebesverbot” historically, this was Wagner’s logical
extension of a lyric theatre tradition that audiences were currently
experiencing from the likes of Spontini, Cherubini, and (fill-in-the-blank)
other Italians. While you do encounter rare hints of the serenity of
“Lohengrin” in this work’s prelude to Act Two, which morphs into
bucolic forest sounds that somewhat foretell what is to come in
“Siegfried” or “Rheingold,” in fact the whole shebang starts off with
a wholly Italianate overture fronted by exuberant castanets and tambourines!
Really, we can hardly believe our ears.
For Wagner was working here to get on the operatic band wagon employing
then-current performance traditions and sounds, including cadenzas,
“standard” accompanied recitative, and, my God, people have arias. With
beginnings, middles and ends. Arias! It is true, “Friedrich’s” big,
somewhat rambling aria presages some of the “Dutchman’s” somewhat
rambling set pieces, but for the most part, this is pretty stock Italian
stuff, albeit taken to Wagnerian (or Meyerbeerian) lengths . The score was in
fact trimmed not only to accommodate the audience’s attention span, but
also to spare the singers more daunting singing than was necessary to make
the case. And quite honestly, what remained was quite interesting, often
engaging, and plenty for me to appreciate that this was a jumping off point
for greater achievements.
The other “hook” for the marketing plan this summer is that it is a
“Shakespeare” themed season, “Das Liebesverbot” qualifying for
inclusion since it is (oh so loosely) based on “Measure for Measure.” To
my taste, that theme has perpetrated a set design mistake, prompting John
Conklin to place a raw wooden, two tiered semi-circular structure on stage
that is meant to suggest The Globe, as backdrop to all four productions.
I have never seen this one-background-fits-all attempt work for any other
festival either (St.Louis and Savonlinna among others) and it doesn’t any
better here. Whatever is put on stage in addition to that rather boring
fixture just looks like it was done on the cheap, and “Das Liebesverbot”
suffered a bit more from this than the others may have. Starting off with a
black front curtain with colorful masks (think Nikki Saint-Phalle) lined up
on the edge of the stage, this was the most interesting and cleanly
theatrical “look” we would see all night.
Worse, the lackluster, industrial inserts and homely, if functional set
pieces took way more time to shift and install than the visual pay-off
merited, and it paced the piece in fits and starts, something that did it no
favors. The one visual theme was that those colorful masks get put in a wire
mesh rolling bin in scene one, which much much later appears in the rebellion
scene suspended over the stage, until the masks are rescued and worn by the
renewed randy revelers. I hope you were able to stand all the excitement of
that revelation? ‘Cause it was about all there was.
It was difficult to settle in a time period. “Luzio’s” leather
jacket and tight jeans, and the general ensemble attire suggested the 50’s,
but then there were also modern day tasers in use throughout to control the
rebels. Kaye Voyce’s costumes were mostly okay, frequently colorful, and
sometimes downright inspired and playful as in the carnival scene.
Mark Schnaible as Friedrich and Claudia Waite as Isabella. Photo: Cory Weaver.
But when we first encountered our heroine “Isabella” in the convent,
she was dressed so severely that she looked like Sister Mary Gertrude Stein.
Considering that “Luzio” must go on and on about her beauty, it was a
visual miscalculation, although not as bad as the purple skin tight,
body-hugging, faux-slinky, glittery, gathered and pleated Spandex dress that
she wore in her second entrance. I have never seen a diva more unflatteringly
costumed. No, not ever. At least amends were made with her Act Two outfits. .
Mark McCullough’s lighting was consistently good, artfully deploying
movable colored lights, a Times Square-like “Corso” sign, tight specials
and judicious down-lighting, all well cued and operated. The shadow screen
for the plot’s important “wife exchange” (shades of “Figaro”) was a
Nicholas Muni directed with imagination, and generated excitement and
dramatic interest from a routine distillation of a romantic triangle plot
that does not have all that much to inspire. I found the opening crowd scene
way too rambunctious and almost hysterically loud, obliterating the charms of
the still-playing overture. In addition to the tasers, there was so much gun
waving by various and sundry principles and choristers that I wondered if the
NRA was a primary sponsor.
Still, I always enjoy Mr. Muni’s stagings, and he moved the many large
scenes around in a meaningful and efficient way, all the while instilling
good character interaction. And a palpable sense of fun. Like the way
“Isabella” rolled the reclining “Luzio” off her convent bed at the
moment he expected sexual victory; the goofy twining legs interplay for
“Brighella” and “Dorella” as they sparred on the floor; the concept
of a drag “Brighella”-as-”Divine” in the script’s “Columbine”
masquerade, were all welcome deft touches. One recurring bit that could be
lost to the production’s credit would be all the lighting up of cigarettes
and “smoking,” especially by “Luzio,” throughout the evening. Unless,
as I also began to suspect, Phillip Morris was a major sponsor, that business
could indeed go “up in smoke” and not be missed.
One other bit of staging invention that I would urge them to re-consider
was the fabricated business of the birth of “Julia and Claudio’s” baby
in the finale. Not only did the assemblage leave poor “Julia” just lying
on the floor, but the holding up of the newborn resonated as a “Lion
King” parody, and the visual and musical final button misfired in their
The singing (of some frequently difficult music) offered considerable
enjoyment, tempered by a few shortcomings, with the men faring better than
the ladies. Wagner did indeed write the role of “Brunhilde.” He did not,
however, include it in “Das Liebesverbot.” Nor is the small Alice Busch
theatre the Metropolitan Opera venue nor the Verona Arena. And that is at the
heart of my concern with Claudia Waite’s “Isabella” as she simply over
sang pretty much the whole night.
I admired her many fearless attacks and there was some truly good
fioriture that began in the upper register and curled downward to resolution
in compelling chest tones. At softer volumes, though, or at full Verona-esque
Geschrei her tone seemed to lose the focused center of pitch. More’s the
pity, because she nailed occasional high flying phrases with laser-like
intensity that, when it happened, were just thrilling. Since this was the
premiere, maybe Ms. Waite is still getting the unfamiliar piece settled in
Her colleague Holli Harrison (the wronged wife “Marianna”) was
similarly afflicted with the compulsion to sing louder than needed. The
beautiful duet these two sing in their very first appearance was marred by
that very lack of a secure, true pitch. Frequently singing at full throttle,
angular leaps up or down did not always land squarely on the note. These are
two serious artists, with excellent intentions and good resumes, whom I would
like to see work less hard and with less volume, to greater effect.
I have appreciated the talented Lauren Skuce before, most notably as
“Ophelie” at St.Louis. Both her stature and her singing are a bit heavier
than I recall, although she threw herself into her “showgirl” take on
“Dorella” with abandon and clear, polished vocalizing.
Tenor Ryan MacPherson grew in strength as “Luzio.” His tone had plenty
of mettle and I could see how “Don Jose” could be in his repertoire. But.
. .as for his characterization here, well. . .constantly spreading his legs
to show off his business, and/or standing in his tight jeans to show off his
tight butt, and/or grabbing his package “Thriller”-like, do not
necessarily convey sexiness or even loutishness. A more sinister sexual
menace could have been communicated with encroaching proximity and sinuous
ill-intent rather than all the James Dean gyrations.
Mark Schnaible showed off a very good young Heldenbariton as
“Friedrich.” He developed a consistent, complex, and understated
“villain,” and his afore-mentioned aria was memorably sung, especially
falling as it did during a rousing rumbling thunderstorm which pelted the
roof like an added percussion part. If the voice is just a little dry, it is
ample and very well-schooled, and Mr. Schnaible displayed well-shaped phrases
sung with considerable presence appropriate to the venue at hand. Fine
Richard Cox brought some impressive credits to “Claudio” but his tenor
seemed a bit under the weather with a foggy passaggio. Still he crooned some
of it very well, sang full voice with abandon, scored a couple of amazing
high notes (if a little covered), and generally demonstrated nuanced
musicianship. The wonderful buffo Kevin Glavin, looking like Oliver Hardy
playing Hitler, married solid singing to a light-on-his-feet, game-for-
anything physical performance that was very appealing.
Tenor Joseph Gaines (one of the Young American Artists) always makes a
fine impression, and he relished every moment of his stage time (as did we)
with a delectable character turn as “Pontio Pilato.” He has a pleasantly
clear, well-projected voice, and very good German diction. A committed and
concentrated actor, his honest and animated performance was blessedly
Two other YAA’s making fine impressions were Zach Borichevsky who
revealed a secure, full-bodied tenor as “Antonio,” and Todd Boyce who
treated his few lines as “Angelo” with a pleasing, firm baritone in his
small final scene.
Corrado Rovaris conducted lovingly the whole night as if “Das
Liebesverbot” were a jewel to be discovered, and his fine orchestra and
dedicated cast responded in kind. If the opening ensemble may have been a bit
too breathless, he calculated the overall shape of the evening with skill,
and provided wonderful support and partnership to his soloists.
Handel’s often performed “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” was a whole other
kettle of “Shakespeare.” (It’s a stretch, isn’t it, to lump it under
First and foremost, the stellar performance of the Glimmerglass summer
(and every season has one) surely has to be the “Cleopatra” of Russian
Lyubov Petrova who I found quite effortlessly magnificent. “V’adore
pupille” and “Piangerò” were just flat out sensational. “Si
pietà” got off to a dodgy orchestral start, but our diva pulled it into
rhythmic focus quickly enough. Ms. Petrova is possessed of a gleaming and
substantial lyric voice, with radiant sotto voce capabilities, and a full
arsenal of gleaming coloratura fireworks at her command. The soprano already
has major Met credits on her resume and small wonder, for she is a major
talent. Watch for her at an opera house near you. You will thank me.
I wanted to really like Laura Vlasak Nolan’s quite accomplished
“Cesare,” really I did. She has a reasonably rich tone, with a resonant
chest voice, a reliable and powerful if rather “white” top register, and
she is a decent mistress of the role’s florid demands. However, there is
something about her assured presence that was not sympathetic, and she seemed
to bit just off the pitch on a number of occasions.
Countertenor Gerald Thompson was a spirited “Tolomeo,” but I thought
that I had heard him sung more impressively (certainly more suavely) on
another occasion. He is a committed performer with a distinctive sound and
considerable gifts, but on this outing he seemed to sing a bit recklessly and
it resulted in some scrappy melismas and strident tones.
French mezzo Aurhelia Varak’s “Sesto” was certainly securely sung,
and portrayed with assurance, but her slightly covered sound and generous
vibrato did not seem a natural match for this music. Several Young American
Artists acquitted themselves very well indeed, beginning with the small role
of “Curio” which was more beautifully sung than I can ever recall it by
baritone Paul La Rosa. Anthony Roth Costanzo’s effective and bookish
“Nireno” showcased a cleanly sung counter tenor and an omnipresent Radar
In spite of very promising vocal gifts, too-young Young Artist Lucia
Servoni was over-parted as “Cornelia,” a role that is the realm of the
Maureen Forresters and Stephanie Blythes of the roster. Jonathon Lasch’s
“Achilla” offered some burnished bass tones, it is true, but suffered
from varying pitch. The other soloist featured on stage was violinist Sue
Rabut, who played the famous obbligato pleasingly in “Cesare’s”
I had some tidiness issues with David Stern’s conducting. While he
partnered the soloists aptly enough, the overall shaping of the opera seemed
lacking, content rather to deal with one aria or ritornello at a time. There
was a lack of clean lines in attacks and segues with the plucked instruments
indulging in noodles and scales that compromised the cadences and
resolutions. Most important, in spite of conscientious and lengthy tuning,
there were significant overall intonation problems, especially with the horns
tootling and blooping away at the end. It is days like this that make me wish
for modern instruments.
Still, Maestro Stern held it all together well enough and really earned
his salary when our star “Cleopatra” had her attention shifted
momentarily during her final set piece and, unexpectedly disoriented, began
imitating a determined mosquito for about six long seconds while Mr Stern cut
urgent semaphores through the air.
That did inject some excitement into what was otherwise a rather workaday
mounting by director Robert Guarino. First, the strange set and costume
design by (yes) John Conklin and Gabriel Berry respectively, seemed to have
Hollywood Soldiers of Fortune meeting Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra in an
uneasy coupling. Indeed, the soprano’s B-movie Egyptian sex kitten costumes
and wigs were reminiscent of Rita Hayworth. I have no issue with the skill of
the designs’ execution, I merely question the choices.
Mr. Conklin’s added staircases and two large pillars were handsome
enough, as artistically under lit by Robert Wierzel, who in fact turned in
very good illumination work throughout. As for Mr.Guardino, he is on the
blame line for some of the weakest stage violence I have seen in many a moon:
blatantly missed stage punches, an obviously phony “knifing,” and an
embarrassingly amateur stalking and gunning of “Tolomeo” by
“Cornelia” and “Sesto.” Not to mention a danced fight sequence
between the Romans and Egyptians during “Cesare’s” long aria interlude
that was without motivation, or really, invention. Was all that intentional
and did I just forget to take my Irony tablets?
Women fared poorly in Guardino’s “Cesare” and watching them being
thrown around, hurled to the ground, held against their will, manhandled and
debased lost its shock-value punch very very quickly. After an hour of this,
I was rooting for “Cornelia” to place a jerked knee right in
“Tolomeo’s,” um, melisma.
Still, whatever qualms I may have, Ms. Petrova’s “Cleo” was easily
worth the price of admission all by itself, and the other musical successes
were icing on that very rich cake.