After 172 years in mothballs, Richard Wagner’s youthful comic opera “Das Liebesverbot” (The Ban on Love) got its first fully staged American premiere Saturday night at the Glimmerglass Opera.
If the large crowd’s response to the two-act opera was any indication, Wagner was ahead of his time. He should have waited until the 21st century to have the work appreciated. (The opera opened and closed the same night in 1836.) Wagner based the opera loosely on Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” but chose to focus his ribald libretto on puritanical laws against sensuality and sexual mores.
This allowed him to develop characters for his leads, which were all well acted here and very strongly sung. Soprano Claudia Waite is Isabella, the convent novice who becomes a femme fatale to save her brother Claudio, tenor Richard Cox, from execution for getting his girlfriend pregnant. Tenor Ryan MacPherson is Luzio, who gets Isabella involved and leads his Sicilian pals in revolt. Bass Mark Schnaible is Friedrich, the contemptible German deputy, who has issued these edicts but becomes ensnared by Isabella. Bass Kevin Glavin is Friedrich’s Sicilian deputy, who, against orders, falls for soprano Lauren Skuce as Dorella. Soprano Holli Harrison is Friedrich’s abandoned wife Mariana. And there’s a huge supporting chorus.
A different sound
Wagner’s music for this opera is unlike any music people usually associate with him. The overture was pure Rossini, the lyricism was out of Bellini’s bel canto tradition and his use of the strings was all von Weber. Only a few hints of what would become his ecstatic use of the strings peeped out. At barely 22, who could blame him for writing in the styles current at the time? A genius has to begin somewhere.
Yet the arias were quite wonderful. Schnaible and Waite had the lion’s share and each supplied much intensity and passion over their long lines. Schnaible was especially riveting in his second act aria, “So spat und noch.” Nicholas Muni directed the huge cast, which moved easily in and out of the massive set John Conklin designed. The players seemed to enjoy the comedy they were creating. MacPherson, dressed in a leather jacket and a big grin, adopted the “Happy Days” Fonz’s moves. Waite went from a tightly wrapped religious virgin to a seductive siren with the help of her bright pink dress, which fitted closely over her ample proportions. That brought a hoot from the crowd as did Glavin’s ballgown “disguise.”
The production was updated to the 1950s. So the more modern dress, in a palette of greys and blacks, and behaviors, such as smoking onstage (many with cigarette holders) and romping with abandon at the nightclub Corso were plausible. Mark McCullough’s stark and dramatic lighting had life of its own. Corrado Rovaris conducted the enthusiastic orchestra. German diction was mostly good but Kelley Rourke’s English supertitles gave clarity.
Other performances are July 22, 28, Aug. 2, 10, 14, 16, 22.