Tuesday 15 October 2013

Das Liebesverbot, Oper Leipzig, 13 October 2013

Images: Kirsten Nijhof

Leipzig Opera House

Brighella – Reinhard Dorn
Pontio Pilato – Martin Petzhold
Luzio – Mark Adler
Claudio – Daniel Kirch
Antonio – Dan Karlström
Angelo – Jürgen Kurth
Danieli – Sejung Chang
Friedrich – Tuomas Pursio
Isabella – Lydia Easley
Mariana – Olena Tokar
Dorella – Magdalena Hinterdobler

Aron Stiehl (director)
Jürgen Kirner (set designs)
Sven Bindsell (costumes)
Christian Schatz (lighting)
Christian Geltinger (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Leipzig Opera (chorus master: Alessandro Zuppardo)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Matthias Foremny (conductor)

Das Liebesverbot, Wagner’s second completed opera, marked an advance upon his first, Die Feen, in one respect. It was performed in his lifetime – once, in Magdeburg, on 29 March 1836, in what Wagner, in Mein Leben, would describe as a ‘totally muddled performance’, such that the ‘material ... remained utterly obscure to the public’. For the second performance, there appeared to be only three people in the stalls, ‘Frau Gottschalk with her husband and a very conspicuous Polish Jew in full costume.’ Drama of a rather different kind, however, ensued behind the stage:

There, Herr Pollert, the husband of my leading lady (who was taking the part of Isabella), had run across the second tenor, Schreiber, a very young and handsome man who was to sing my Claudio, against whom the offended husband had long nursed a secret rancour born of jealousy. ... My Cluadio took such a pasting ... that the unfortunate fellow had to retreat into the dressing-room, his face bloodied. Isabella received news of this, and plunged after her raging husband in desperation, only to be so soundly cuffed by him that she went into a fit. The uproar among the ensemble soon knew no bounds: people took sides, and it wouldn’t have taken much more to produce a free-for-all, for it seemed that this unhappy evening offered everyone a suitable occasion to pay off mutual grievances once and for all. It was soon evident that the two who had been subjected to Herr Pollert’s ‘ban on love’ were quite incapable of mounting the stage that day. The stage director was sent before the curtain to advise the curiously select gathering in the auditorium that ‘owing to unforeseen difficulties’ the performance of the opera could not take place.

With that came ‘the end’ of Wagner’s ‘career as conductor and composer of operas in Magdeburg. The story might make rather a good opera in itself, or at least a metatheatrical conceit for a staging of Wagner’s own ‘ban on love’ opera: Die Novize von Palermo, as it had to be called, in order to satisfy the Lenten censor. (Wagner’s assurance that it had been ‘adapted from a very serious Shakespearean play,’ Measure for Measure, also seems to have helped.)

Such, in this co-production with Bayreuth – two performances took place there not in the Festspielhaus as part of the Festival proper, but in the Oberfrankenhalle, in July – was not, however, to be the case. There were, moreover, many more people in the Leipzig audience; indeed, the stalls on this occasion were close to full. Let us leave, though, on one side my Konzept, which, should they ever deign to stage the work, I am happy to let one of our English companies have for nothing. The Leipzig staging has some powerful moments, though some that left me a little bewildered too. Jürgen Kirner’s set designs provide an impressive backdrop, especially for the monochrome coldness of the hypocritical viceroy Friedrich’s office, and the convent scene, in which Isabella, newly admitted, receives news from Luzio, of her brother Claudio’s impending ‘death penalty for an amorous escapade’ (Mein Leben). There, relative abstraction and a sign of the Cross strike just the right balance between the serenity of the setting and a warning that Wagner’s Young German concerns wish to promote a ‘victory of free sensualism over puritanical hypocrisy’, as the composer put it in his Autobiographical Sketch for Heinrich Laube’s Zeitung für die elegente Welt. (Laube himself was quite an influence upon this and subsequent Wagner dramas, Tannhäuser included.) That, presumably, was also the justification for a recurring screen emblazoned with what seemed to be photographs of a lush, tropical rainforest, complete with insects. Sicilian heat might, however, have been more clearly expressed with something a little closer to home. Giant masks for the forbidden and ultimately victorious Carnival – though is it ultimately to be victorious? – offer an intriguing hint that apparent licence may cast its own dialectical authoritarianism.

Tuomas Pursio (Friedrich)

Without a stronger overall directorial conception, though, a post-modern æsthetic, with hippyish costumes for the apostles of free(-ish) love, older dress for the forces of authority, something more ‘timeless’ for Isabella and her friend Mariana in the convent, and so on, does not necessarily add up to the sum of its parts, let alone something more than them. For Aron Stiehl, in his direction of the work, sometimes seems more intent upon ironising it than engaging with Wagner’s concerns; irony and Wagner are if not quite impossible partners than bedfellows for whom comfort is of little concern. In what is, perhaps, in musical terms the composer’s weakest completed opera, he probably needs a little more help than this. Silly dances for the chorus send up rather than probe Wagner’s not-entirely-successful attempt at Italianate levity. The score itself insists that, whatever his would-be libertinism, he cannot let go of the Germanic roots that had served him so well in Die Feen and would soon do so again. Such is, of course, at odds with Wagner’s alleged dramatic concerns: Friedrich and German regulation are very much the enemy. The concluding surprise, in which Friedrich re-emerges, apparently to take command once again of the situation and meet the King, is an interesting step, quite at odds with Wagner’s crowd-dispensed justice, in which the viceroy is permitted by the crowd, far more clement than he, to lose himself in the carnival celebration. It would, however, register more powerfully as a questioning of the work – in any case, something of a difficult task, when relatively few in the audience will know the opera – were it better prepared. It jars – such, at any rate, was my experience in the theatre, as opposed to my post hoc attempt at explication – rather than convinces dramatically. Still, Personenregie is in itself accomplished; one gains a sense that the characters are doing what they have been asked.    


The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra offered a typically deep and burnished sound, though there were moments when ensemble was not as tight as one might have hoped for. Conductor Matthias Foremny may well, however, have been at fault in that respect, for his reading often seemed a little unsure whether to stress the Teutonic or the Italianate, not only falling been two stools, which, given Wagner’s score, might well be fair enough, even fruitful, but hesitant. The (relatively) well-known Overture, in which most of Wagner’s more memorable melodic ideas put in an appearance, was a case in point. It may be unfair to draw a comparison with Wolfgang Sawallisch’s excellent Munich recording (or indeed, his Philadelphia recording of the Overture alone), but the conviction required to harness disparate elements, to channel them into a more-or-less convincing sequence, if not quite an organic whole, was missing here. Foremny’s stopping and starting was to a certain extent overcome as the performance progressed; however, I could not help but wonder what might have come from a less Kapellmeister-ish account, such, for instance, as Ulf Schirmer had offered earlier in the year, for Leipzig’s splendid production of Die Feen.

Christiane Libor had played Isabella on the first night; for this second-night performance,  she was replaced by Lydia Easley. It seemed to take a little while for Easley fully to get into her stride, and there were a few questionable moments of intonation when it came to coloratura, but hers was on the whole an impressive, convincing performance. Olena Tokar made a fine impression as Mariana, the wronged, abandoned wife of Friedrich, especially in a beautifully-sung account of her second-act aria. Daniel Kirch and Mark Adler offered much to admire as Claudio and Luzio; it would be good to hear more of them in later, more substantial Wagner roles. Reinhard Dorn’s Brighella (the Sbirri chief) was stronger on comic action than vocal beauty, but perhaps that was the point. He certainly contrasted well with the more malevolent and indeed more complex Friedrich of Tuomas Pursio, whose stage presence and vocal delivery exerted a fascination perhaps beyond the strict merits of the score. Choral singing was of a high standard throughout, especially so in the second act. We can safely assume, then, that, whatever reservations might be voiced concerning the production, the Leipzig audience had a far better opportunity to see and to hear something approaching Wagner’s conception, however flawed, than the bewildered citizens of Magdeburg ever did, or Wagner ever would.