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Ryan MacPherson as Luzio and Lauren Skuce as Dorella. Photo: Cory Weaver.
30 Jul 2008

All That Glimmers. . .

The novelty feature drawing veteran opera enthusiasts in general, and Richard Wagnerites in particular to Glimmerglass Opera this summer is that composer’s “Das Liebesverbot,” in what is touted as the North American fully staged premiere of this seldom-talked-about-and-even-less-performed early piece.

Richard Wagner: Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love)

Friedrich (Mark Schnaible), Isabella (Claudia Waite), Claudio (Richard Cox), Mariana (Holli Harrison), Luzio (Ryan MacPherson), Dorella (Lauren Skuce), Brighella (Kevin Glavin), Pontio Pilato (Joseph Gaines), Antonio (Zach Borichevsky), Angelo (Todd Boyce) and Danieli (Robert Kerr). Glimmerglass Opera, Corrado Rovaris (cond.).

Above: Ryan MacPherson as Luzio and Lauren Skuce as Dorella. Photo: Cory Weaver.


First, you must dispel any thoughts that you are going to experience anything aurally that sounds like the master’s, well, masterpieces.

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.

Liebesverbot2.pngMark 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 fine effect.

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 coordination.

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 throat.

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 work.

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 cliche-free.

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 that theme?)

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 O’Reilly characterization.

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” aria.

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.

James Sohre

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