WAGNER Das Liebesverbot
Wagner’s second complete opera mostly switched allegiance to contemporary Italian (Donizetti, Rossini) and French (Auber, Hérold) models rather than German ones. Its overture opens with a Mediterranean skirt swish of castanets, tambourine and triangle. (The libretto translates Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure Venice into Palermo.) There follows a ‘Grand comic opera’ which, in the still invaluable and only complete 1976 BBC recording under Sir Edward Downes (now on DG), runs a little over three hours. This new performance lasts around two hours 35 – there are some cuts mostly of repeats, and the running time is about the same as the 1983 Orfeo Sawallisch recording, although longer than rivals new and older from Frankfurt (Oehms/Weigle) and Austrian Radio (Melodram/Heger). Only the ending here is seriously truncated, with the final March returning the German King to Palermo (nearly five minutes on the Downes recording) cut completely.
The cast, led by Christopher Maltman’s Friedrich (Wagner’s version of the hypocritical regent Angelo) and Manuela Uhl’s Isabella, go to with more than a will, although Uhl’s encompassing of the part’s ferociously wide tessitura is less confident than reviews of last year’s Madrid opening suggested. The Luzio and Claudio tenors – more awkward to cast because of Wagner’s uneven vocal writing – present clear personalities but sometimes struggle with their music. Bolton conducts with enthusiasm. Like Downes he plays the ruling influence of each musical section for all its worth – the chorus music and the scenes with Luzio, Brighella and Dorella are unapologetically Italian, the nunnery duet for Isabella/Mariana wholly Weber-like; whereas the Sawallisch and Weigle recordings boil down Wagner’s borrowings into a kind of pre-mature Wagner style which lessens the score’s eccentricity and colour.
There’s obvious value in being able to access a performance of this relatively unexplored work on screen for the first time (officially). Yet director Kasper Holten has decided from the word go – an animated projection of Wagner’s head makes faces during the playing of the overture – that this is a comic opera through and through. He gets Maltman to play Friedrich – surely a more dangerous character – in the style of past British artists essaying Beckmesser (and has designer Steffen Aarfing present a flat wall-plus-projections 1970s musical set to go with that). No opportunity for a laugh is passed up – the teddy bear Friedrich agonises with in bed when there is no assignation message from Isabella or the judge’s gavel which either loses its head or becomes an accidental phallic worry bead. The result, while well-worked, takes away a dimension from Wagner’s opera. The revolt to ensure free love (which the chorus and Isabella celebrate at the end) needs a genuine opposition, which is not much enhanced by having the returning King played by a male actor with an Angela Merkel face mask.