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Tuomas Pursio as Friedrich [Photo by Fabio Parenzan — Visualart Trieste]
01 Jan 2015

Das Liebesverbot opens the new season at Teatro Verdi in Trieste

Aron Stiehl’s production of this rare early Wagner opera cheerfully brings commedia dell’arte to La Cage aux Folles.

Das Liebesverbot opens the new season at Teatro Verdi in Trieste

A review by Jonathan Sutherland

Above: Tuomas Pursio as Friedrich

Photos by Fabio Parenzan — Visualart 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 Nürnberg (the orchestral introduction and postlude to Isabella’s So sei’s! scena in Act II); Lohengrin (Mariana’s Laß mir die Träne meine Trost in Act I) and evenDie Walküre (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 große komische Oper 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 für immer streng verboten sind!) 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 ante 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 Dohnányi (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 Brünnhildes. 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! Für seinen feigen Wankelmut aria in Act II finishing with an exposed top B natural on erkämpfen; and the long, almost Verdian phrases in Du schmähest 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, glühend, wie des Südens Hauch 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 erscheint) 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 Jürgen 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 Liebesverbot 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 Dohnányi, Director: Aron Stiehl, Stage design: Jürgen Kirner, Costume design: Sven Bindseil, Lighting: Claudio Schmid, Chorus Master: Paolo Vero. Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi di Trieste 18th December 2014.

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