Richard Wagner, Das Liebesverbot, after Shakespeare
Glimmerglass Opera, Cooperstown, New York
Conductor: Corrado Rovaris
Director: Nicholas Muni
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
Danieli – Robert Kerr
From the sprightly start of the overture, you know this is not Bayreuth’s Wagner. The Glimmerglass Opera, as part of its Shakespeare-themed season, presents the North American fully-staged premiere of Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), Wagner’s own topsy-turvy adaptation of Measure for Measure. It was only his second full-length piece (the first was Die Feen—the Fairies—another rarity), initially staged in 1836. The overture sets up the quarrel to follow between somber ascetic and antic carnivalesque impulses. If you know Shakespeare’s play you think you know who wins, but Wagner makes some significant alterations.
The basic outline of the story remains the same. In the absence of the ruler, his Deputy sets upon a course of moral correction for the citizens of the city (in Shakespeare Vienna; in Wagner, significantly, Palermo). Fornicators are to be punished by death. One unlucky condemned man, Claudio (tenor Richard Cox) sends his trouble-making friend Luzio (tenor Ryan MacPherson) to ask his sister, the novitiate Isabella (soprano Claudia Waite), to intercede for him with the hard-hearted Deputy. Despite her reluctance to leave the cloister, Isabella agrees, and succeeds only too well. The Deputy succumbs to her charms, and offers a devil’s bargain, sleep with him and he will free her brother. Here Wagner makes a key deletion. In the play the ruler (the Duke of Vienna) never leaves, but disguises himself to spy on his citizens and arrange a just but strict ending for all. The opera omits this puppet-master figure, and the King of Sicily is never seen. This absence makes for a more direct confrontation between the forces of license and the law.
The change in location also shifts the emphasis. All the characters are now Sicilian except for the Deputy, here named Friedrich, an unwelcome dour German transplant. Sung by bass-baritone Mark Schnaible with grim, almost manic control, Friedrich has done more than ban extra-marital sex: he has outlawed Carnival itself, literally imprisoning the Carnival masks (which remain suspended in a cage during much of the action). The set and costumes evoke the 1950s, with the gray suits and uniforms of authority squaring off against the leather jackets, tight skirts and sunglasses of rebellion. Both sides come with accoutrements: cattle prods for the cops, cigarettes for the partiers. Friedrich is given a sidekick not present in the play, the policeman Brighella; the wonderful basso buffo Kevin Glavin beautifully conveys the incompetence of this figure, whose very presence suggests that Friedrich’s is a doomed enterprise. The policeman’s yearning aria, “Ach könnt ‘ich nur ein wenig richten,” conveying his desire to be more barbaric and cruel, sets him up nicely for his fate (he will be cross-dressed, and conquered by love).
The chief opponents of authority are the novitiate Isabella and the bad-boy Luzio. Wagner’s Isabella is a much more passionate figure than Shakespeare’s. In particular she embodies outrage – when we first meet her she is listening to the lament of Mariana (soprano Holli Harrison), betrayed and abandoned (with child) by Friedrich. Mariana and Isabella sing competing themes, Mariana of love, Isabella of anger. The alternate merging and clashing of emotions and melodic lines work particularly well in these dual scenes. Immediately after Mariana’s revelation to Isabella comes another such sequence in which Luzio brings the bad news about her brother: Mariana promptly flies into a rage at Friedrich; Luzio is enchanted by her passion (“O Himmel, sie ist schön!”); Mariana is then furious with him. Waite, a powerful soprano, achieves a suitably wild quality here, and MacPherson counters her with a kind of menacing sweetness.
This pattern of shifting, of donning the various passions, largely provides the structure of the opera. Wagner seems fascinated here with exploring possibilities of tone, with trying out French and Italian styles. This particular Shakespeare play, which emphasizes the radical transformation of characters, affords the composer ample opportunity for experiments and shifts in mood. There’s something carnivalesque about the opera itself, and the roles as a result are unstable. While Wagner’s usual through-line, the leitmotif, is not entirely absent here, the characters often prove puzzling and inconsistent, and their emotional gymnastics can, during the less engaging stretches, grow tedious. That said, there are moments of genuine emotion. Schnaible’s Friedrich is, as Isabella declares, a monster. But even as his henchman Brighella scornfully declares that his boss can hold out against love because he’s a German, Friedrich is melting. In the previous scene he is on tenterhooks, waiting for word from Isabella (“So spät, und noch kein Brief von Isabella?”); when word arrives, leading him to expect that she will succumb, off go the eyeglasses and on goes the carnival masque—a tellingly symbolic swap. Schnaible makes this particular shift real and touching without losing the character’s dark side. That Friedrich will be tricked, exposed, and forced into the role of family man doesn’t lessen the effect of his revelation that he can feel passion. Claudio’s prison scene at the beginning of the second act affords Richard Cox an opportunity to move from a bereft lament at his impending death to noble outrage on Isabella’s behalf when he hears of the proposed deal to hopeful pleading that she might save him. Facing her rage at this weakness, he pleads forgiveness. This is one of many roller-coaster scenes in the opera, but Cox pulls it off and the emotions ring true.
Isabella can be the hardest character to sell here. She storms through the piece, determined to mete out justice and achieve revenge (the opera is much less clear than the play on the distinction here). Director Muni takes a chance and plays up Isabella’s outraged and outrageous behavior. When she goes to meet Friedrich, for instance, Waite’s novitiate dons an amazingly tight skirt and gangster-moll sunglasses. Tossing her black lace scarf, she marches across the stage. From the start, she provides an authority figure to challenge the Deputy. There is little of the bride of Christ here (even in the cloister she has cigarettes hidden in her pillowcase), and so Friedrich’s fall seems more common, less perverse. Shakespeare’s Deputy Angelo, in contrast, acknowledges his lust after virtue, asking himself “Dost thou desire her foully for those things That make her good?” Wagner’s Isabella is much more carnal, and Waite plays her as a physical force. The role is a difficult one, requiring a great range, and Waite is usually up to the task (there were a couple of brassy moments). What could have been a downside—her voice is a big one for such a small house—proved a benefit in this case, intensifying her character’s dangerous emotions and their ultimate power over others. Wagner, in his own synopsis of the piece, declares that Isabella will not return to the convent. However, in his opera, as in Shakespeare’s play, her fate remains ambiguous, lending a curious tone to the carnival revel at the end.
Das Liebesverbot, while not one of Wagner’s greats, is more than an historical curiosity. This opera will never become a standard, but the Glimmerglass production makes the case for its stage-worthiness and ability to delight.