Das Liebesverbot

Sebastian Weigle
Chor der Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester
2/4 May 2012
Alte Oper Frankfurt
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
FriedrichMichael Nagy
LuzioPeter Bronder
ClaudioCharles Reid
AntonioSimon Bode
AngeloFranz Mayer
IsabellaChristiane Libor
MarianaAnna Gabler
BrighellaThorsten Grümbel
DanieliKihwan Sim
DorellaAnna Ryberg
Pontio PilatoJulian Prégardien

Das Liebesverbot was Wagner’s second opera, and was only given one complete performance during the composer’s lifetime. That came when Wagner was music director at the opera house in Magdeburg. He managed to get the work performed during his final days there, the first time his music had ever been staged although the ill-rehearsed staging apparently left much to be desired. A second poorly attended performance had to be abandoned when a dispute broke out between the singers backstage. Although Wagner tried to get the work presented again at various theatres during the next ten years he finally abandoned any attempt to restage it. Later in life he came to regard it with disfavour because of its reliance on Italian and French models of comic opera. He presented the score to King Ludwig II of Bavaria as a slightly embarrassed souvenir. It was finally staged again after his death, but by this time the work was hardly more than a curiosity.

Wagner’s score in its original form is pretty substantial – much longer than the standard Italian opera buffe or the French opéras-comiques which formed its ostensible model. The text is based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Apart from Rienzi it’s the only occasion on which a Wagnerian opera is based on the work of another author. The plot is substantially altered. The informative booklet note speculates that Wagner intended the work as an allegory of the state of Europe at the time under the despotic rule of the regimes that succeeded the Napoleonic era, dominated in Germany by the arch-reactionary Austrian chancellor Metternich. Wagner avoided censorship problems by shifting the action from Shakespeare’s Vienna to Palermo. Although this argument has the merit of linking the opera into the overall span of the Wagnerian canon, it has to be said that the music itself – apart from the occasional use of themes which Wagner re-employed in later works – would not be generally recognisable as Wagnerian in style at all. Instead it sounds, for much of the time, like a very good slice of Rossinian froth. One must admire the manner and technique which the young composer employs in his imitation of his Italian and French models. Some of the extended finales and ensembles have a bubbling glee which is both infectious and enjoyable, even if often Wagner’s enthusiasm leads him to go on too long.

There are also hints here and there of the more mature composer: in particular the duet between Frederick and Isabella where he tries to seduce her harks back to Weber; there’s an almost literal note-for-note quotation from Der Freischütz. There’s even an allusion to Beethoven’s Fidelio – when she calls him “Abscheulicher!” Much has been made of Wagner’s exploratory use of the leitmotif in Das Liebesverbot, but only one such theme recurs regularly, that of the “Ban on Love”. Indeed it comes round almost too regularly during the closing scene of Act One. Even here one finds Wagner adapting its harmonisation and scoring in a manner which presages his much more innovative methods in the Ring. During the later stages of the opera Wagner moves away from his French and Italian models, sounding much closer to the contemporary works of Marschner and Lortzing – although Das Liebesverbot predates many of the latter’s major operatic scores. Like those composers Wagner also resorts unexpectedly to passages of spoken dialogue in the Second Act – this to advance the complications of the plot. Even more unexpectedly there are passages of secco recitative which Wagner indicates in the score can be substituted by spoken dialogue, an option taken in this Oehms set. The dialogue is well delivered – it even manages to elicit laughter from the audience – and is only slightly abridged.

There have been a few recordings of Das Liebesverbot over the last fifty years, all taken from live or broadcast performances. Only one of these has been truly complete, that conducted by Sir Edward Downes for the BBC during the Wagner celebrations of 1976 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Bayreuth Festival. A recording conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch was made available on Orfeo, deriving from abridged stage performances given in 1983 for the centenary of Wagner’s death. Subsequently an earlier broadcast conducted by Robert Heger has been issued on various labels but this is even more heavily cut. There have been other recordings to be had at various times, but none are currently available. This set appears to be the first recording made during the digital era, again deriving from concert performances. Once again the score is subjected to considerable abridgement. The scissors have been applied with a will to many of the ensemble passages, cutting not only repeated sections but also whole segments which are not to be found elsewhere in the score. This is unfortunate in that the shape of the ensembles is often considerably distorted, with passages hardly having time to register before a modulation unexpectedly leads into new material. Nearly forty pages of vocal score go missing at the end of Act One. Even the overture, relatively familiar in its full form from other recordings, is abridged here.

I have recently been accused by Malcolm Walker on the message board of this site of being a “purist” about the matter of cuts, when I objected to the unfortunately regular abridgement of the final scene of Lohengrin and suggested that recordings which made that cut could not be regarded as a first choice for a collection. I rehearsed at some lengths the dramatic and musical problems occasioned by the cut in Lohengrin in a review last year, and do not propose to rehearse the arguments again here. If by “purist” it is intended to imply that I object in principle to cuts in operatic recordings, I will plead guilty as charged. As a composer myself I would wish my music to be listened to, and judged, on the basis of the whole of the score as written. Although I might be prepared to countenance abridgement in the context of a live or staged performance – and have indeed done so – for a recording of the score I would wish listeners to be given the opportunity to hear the music in its entirety. If after that they decided to make their own omissions, they could do so by use of the cuing facility on their players but that option would be theirs. A recording which denies them that option cannot, in my contention, be regarded as a first choice for the library shelf unless there really is no other alternative.

Having said which, Wagner never during his later life had a chance to re-stage or revise Das Liebesverbot even if he had wished to. I can well believe that he would have taken the opportunity if it had presented itself to make some abridgement of the lengthy repetitions of material in the score. It should perhaps be noted in this context that Wagner himself admitted that he was a poor judge of how long his early operas would last in performance. He was genuinely shocked that the first staged performance of Rienzi went on much later than he anticipated. In his subsequent career his operas didn’t necessarily get much shorter, but he was better at pacing himself. I don’t think the cuts in any revival which Wagner had supervised would have been as severe as those made in the concert performance under consideration here. That said, the quality of singing, playing and recording are sufficient in my mind to outweigh this consideration. The absolutely complete Downes performance has only been intermittently available – although it has recently re-emerged on the Ponto label and forms part of the DG Wagner – Complete Operas (0289 479 0502 8 43) set. The sound of the Heger recording which gives us a bit more of Act Two than the current issue is pretty intolerable even for a German radio broadcast of the 1960s. The Sawallisch, which I have never been able to hear, has some pretty impressive singers on its roster but it only takes some four minutes longer over the score than the current recording, which implies that the cuts are much the same. According to the review of the Sawallisch issue in Fanfare, there were a couple of minor alterations made to the libretto to provide ‘in-jokes’ for the Munich audience; fortunately there are none such here.

Sawallisch’s singers were recorded live on stage, with the inevitable problems that one would expect might arise in such a complicated score from minor errors in performance and balance. Here in a concert performance we have a cast of singers who are generally accurate. I noticed a couple of mis-pitchings of vocal lines in recitatives, which would not impinge on a listener following without a score. Their placing on the platform makes sure that the complex textures do not obscure any important lines. In the Sawallisch set Hermann Prey took the most dramatically and musically interesting part of the corrupt viceroy Frederick. Here Michael Nagy sounds pretty good and ranges freely over the very wide vocal ambit that Wagner has written for him. He even manages to sound like Prey in his big Act Two Aria. Elsewhere he has a more naturally appropriate voice than the latter, who didn’t really have out-and-out villainy in his good-natured armoury. Christiane Libor is fully Nagy’s match as Isabella, but Charles Reid as her brother Claudio sounds slightly over-parted in a role that really calls for something approaching a full Wagnerian heldentenor sound in the Lohengrin mould. Incidentally he also does something generally unheard of in a Wagner score: decorating the final cadence (marked ad lib by Wagner) in his little arietta which launches Act Two. Libor too adds an unwritten and effective top C to the final passage of the following duet. Peter Bronder and Anna Gabler are fine as the secondary couple of principal lovers, some very occasional sourness of sound apart. Mention should also be made of Thorsten Grümbal as Frederick’s corrupt henchman Brighella, who makes the trial scene which opens the second CD into a real highlight. The rest of the predominantly young cast fit well into their roles, and Sebastian Weigle gives the often sparkling orchestration its full head in the excellent recorded balance. The chorus bring to their heavily truncated passages plenty of enthusiasm, accuracy and body. The enthusiastic applause from the audience at the end is well deserved.

Apart from the intelligent and interesting essay on the work itself to which I have referred, the booklet also commendably comes with a complete text. No translation, alas, but singing translations into both English and French can be found in the complete vocal score available on ISMLP – although the listener will need to be prepared to turn batches of pages very quickly to catch up with the abridgements. What would be ideal would be an absolutely complete studio reading of Das Liebesverbot in modern sound and with star performers – hardly an absolute priority, although in the Wagner centenary year it is I suppose a possibility. Failing that, this set will do very well indeed for those who want a recording of absolutely every opera that Wagner wrote. It may be enjoyable for others too, such as those who like early romantic comic opera and fancy a bit of a change from Rossini or Auber.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Dem Wagner-Jahr sei Dank: Es lenkte das Licht auf ein Frühwerk des Komponisten, das sonst kaum Beachtung findet. Wagner selber hat «Das Liebesverbot», 1836 in Magdeburg uraufgeführt, später als einen Irrweg bezeichnet. Zum 200. Geburtstag des Komponisten ist das Stück beispielsweise an der Oper Leipzig inszeniert worden, und das Label Oehms Classics legt nun den Live-Mitschnitt einer konzertanten Aufführung an der Oper Frankfurt vor. Sebastian Weigle leitet den Chor der Oper Frankfurt sowie das Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester. Bei den Solisten finden sich nicht die ganz grossen Namen, und bezeichnend ist, dass die Hauptrolle der Isabella sowohl in Leipzig wie in Frankfurt mit der Sopranistin Christiane Libor besetzt ist, denn es gibt nur wenige Interpretinnen, welche diese Partie einstudiert haben. Libor deutet die Nonne Isabella, die den heuchlerischen Moralisten Friedrich listig entlarvt, als eine emotionale und selbstbewusste Frau. Michael Nagy stellt Friedrich nicht nur als Bösewicht dar, sondern zeigt ihn, im grossen Monolog des zweiten Akts, als zerrissenen und sehr unglücklichen Mann. Charles Reid verleiht dem schuldigen und reumütigen Claudio ein menschliches Antlitz. Mit strahlendem Tenor gibt Peter Bronder den Edelmann Luzio, der zum Schluss verhindert, dass Isabella wieder ins Kloster zieht. Die buffonesken Elemente kommen in der Ouvertüre, in den Chören und im komischen Paar Brighella – Dorella ausgiebig zum Zug.

Voix des Arts

Even in this celebratory year, the fact that Richard Wagner composed operas before Der Fliegende Holländer has largely been overlooked. With two intriguing Ring Cycles—a Cycle from Hamburg, conducted by Simone Young, and the engaging Frankfurt Ring led by Sebastian Weigle—already in their catalogue, the inquisitive minds who manage Oehms Classics have looked beyond the established Wagner canon to the works of the composer’s youth. Their standard-setting recording of Die Feen, Wagner’s first opera (composed in 1833, when the composer was twenty years old, but not performed until 1888), is already available, and joining it now, in honor of the Wagner Bicentennial, is this new recording of Das Liebesverbot, the 1834 opera that was Wagner’s only effort in a comic vein until Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, premiered nearly three decades after the first performance of Das Liebesverbot in Magdeburg in 1836. [A new recording of Rienzi, also taken from concert performances, will complete the series in 2014.] As was his habit, Wagner composed his own libretto for Das Liebesverbot, adapting its plot from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Shakespeare’s play is a troublesome creation, its classification as a comedy masking a number of plot elements that are anything but funny. Seemingly, some of the play’s black humor was lost on Wagner, who transferred the action from Vienna to Palermo and introduced a political element which is mostly absent in Shakespeare. Musically, Das Liebesverbot belongs more to the world of Auber and Spontini than to that of Wagner’s later operas, though there are occasional passages that would not be out of place in Lohengrin or Tannhäuser. Dramatically, however, Das Liebesverbot explores a theme that would remain central to Wagner’s work throughout his career: the juxtaposition of sexuality with very specific systems of morals. Perhaps crucial to understanding Wagner’s development as an artist is the observation of the shift that occurred in his exploration of this conceit between Das Liebesverbot and his later masterpieces Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, the Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal. Whereas the concept of ‘free love’ and the characters who adhere to it—Venus, Tristan and Isolde, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Kundry—are victimized by the societies they inhabit, the orgiastic lovers in Das Liebesverbot triumph over the constraints of their social order. Is this merely a manifestation of a young composer’s enthusiasm for the hormonal excesses of youth or a critical clue to unlocking the mysteries of a famously enigmatic composer’s hypersensitive psyche?

Sebastian Weigle, the Chor der Oper Frankfurt, and the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester have proved stylish interpreters of a wide array of music, ranging from Italian verismo in Leoni’s L’Oracolo to contemporary German opera in Aribert Reimann’s Lear and Medea. Some of their most impressive work has been in Wagner, however, and their Ring is notable for the clarity of instrumental textures and the consistent involvement of Maestro Weigle’s conducting, sustained across the span of all four operas. Das Liebesverbot, though musically very different from the Ring operas, benefits from the same unity of vision displayed in Maestro Weigle’s Ring on Oehms Classics, his conducting of the earlier opera molded by an individual but never idiosyncratic approach to the score. The success of Maestro Weigle’s approach is revealed by the absence of tempi that seem in any way inappropriate for the music: every speed seems precisely right and selected with attentiveness to the support needed by the singers. This correctness of pacing is of tremendous importance in an opera like Das Liebesverbot, in which, despite the fact that Wagner had not yet fully nurtured his gifts for writing scores that test audiences’ stamina, the slightly self-conscious efforts at revealing musical sophistication can be too much of a good thing. Maestro Weigle’s Frankfurt choristers and orchestral instrumentalists respond to his leadership with complete conviction, producing singing and playing of a quality for which one longs in many performances of Wagner’s mature operas. Above all, singers, instrumentalists, and conductor convey a sense of fun that makes this performance, though recorded during concert performances, fizz with the energy and high spirits of the stage.

Musically and dramatically, Das Liebesverbot shares with its more illustrious comedic sibling Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the trait of having important rôles and more important rôles: no character is insignificant. Central to the plot (and the comedy) are the machinations of the tavern proprietor Danieli and his employees Dorella, a waitress, and Pontio Pilato, the tavern manager. South Korean bass-baritone Kihwan Sim sings Danieli’s lines with rounded, ringing tone. Swedish soprano Anna Ryberg is delightful as Dorella, a worthy ancestor to Verdi’s Mistress Quickly, her tone bright and forward without being shrill and her dramatic instincts sure throughout the performance. Pontio Pilato, an invention of Wagner’s libretto, is portrayed with splendid animation and subtlety by tenor Julian Prégardien, whose inheritance of the refined interpretive skills displayed by his father, the renowned Christoph Prégardien, uniquely qualifies him for his rôle. Mr. Prégardien also inherited something of his father’s silvery timbre, and he has a splendid time with Pontio Pilato’s self-serving transformation from imprisoned tavern-keeper to prison guard.

Friedrich, the [obviously Teutonic] Governor of Sicily, is commandingly sung by baritone Michael Nagy, whose Wagnerian credentials include acclaimed performances of Wolfram in Tannhäuser and Gunther in Götterdämmerung. Friedrich is a less demanding assignment than either of those parts, but it is not an insubstantial rôle. Mr. Nagy’s voice is a more naturally attractive, bel canto instrument than many baritones heard in the music of Wagner, but this contributes meaningfully to his portrayal of a meddling but ultimately noble man. He sings his ‘Szene und Aria’ in Act Two, ‘So spät und noch kein Brief von Isabella,’ with commendable energy and firm tone. Chief constable Brighella, a figure who would feel perfectly at home in any of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s better operettas, is sung with panache by bass Thorsten Grümbel, whose sharply-characterized performance gives Brighella all the zany charm of a Keystone Cop.

Except for Angelo, all of the opera’s noblemen and their friends are tenors. Angelo, the lone baritone in the heady-toned quartet of young gentlemen of leisure, is capably sung by Oper Frankfurt Kammersänger Franz Mayer. Young tenor Simon Bode brings a lovely timbre to Antonio’s music, his singing shaped by an obvious affection for the music. Charles Reid, whose performances at the Metropolitan Opera have found him sharing the stage with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Anna Netrebko, and Plácido Domingo, sings Claudio with diction and tone of equal clarity, voicing his lines with freshness that tires only at the top of his range. The playboy Luzio is convincing portrayed by English-born tenor Peter Bronder, who copes well with Wagner’s strenuous demands in his duet with Isabella in Act One and the trio with Isabella and Dorella in Act Two. Mr. Bronder’s voice loses focus in the extreme upper register, but he summons a deftly-placed top note to cap the duet with Isabella, ‘Es ist ein Mann.’ The tone can occasionally sound hollow, perhaps an effect of microphone arrangement, and while more delicate shading of tone would be welcome in several of Luzio’s scenes Mr. Bronder offers a responsive, ingratiating performance.

In their jaunts through Das Liebesverbot, both Isabella and Mariana encounter hurdles that are atypical of Wagner heroines: stretches of Italianate cantilena, gratuitous top notes, and—perish the thought!—passages of coloratura. Mariana, the novice nun whose intended—and, not surprisingly, ultimately abandoned—vocation does not prevent her from wholeheartedly taking part in intrigue, is sung with the voice of an angel and the concentration of a prize fighter by soprano Anna Gabler. Ms. Gabler possesses the gift of making every word that she sings sound completely spontaneous, and the effectiveness of her performance is considerably enhanced by the fact that it sounds as though every note is a new invention. Ms. Gabler’s voice shines in every ensemble in which she sings, portraying Mariana as a winsome lass who cherishes her place at the center of the action. Isabella, presumably the more ‘mature’ of the leading ladies, does not shrink from her share of conspiratorial revelries. Sung with the fire and vocal acumen expected in Donizetti or Verdi rôles, the Isabella of soprano Christiane Libor is a fascinating creation, at once passionate and poised. Ms. Libor is amassing accolades in some of the most challenging soprano parts in the German repertory, including Beethoven’s Leonore, Weber’s Agathe, and Strauss’s Feldmarschallin, and her singing in this performance raises hopes that she will not neglect Italian repertory, as well. Her command of bravura music is impressive, but it should not be forgotten that Beethoven’s Leonore has in ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin’ a vocal tour de force that demands coloratura agility and, in ‘Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern,’ unbroken cantilena. Brünnhilde, too, has her trills, after all. Though she has stirring duets with both Luzio and Claudio, Wagner did not give Isabella a concerted number in which to make her mark, but this is of little consequence to a singer as gifted as Ms. Libor: singing boldly but never without feminine charm, she offers as compelling a performance of a Wagner heroine—albeit one quite different from the better-known ones—as any ever recorded.

Das Liebesverbot was a spectacular failure at its first performance, owing more to opera house politics than to the quality of the young Wagner’s score, but such a legacy—combined with the composer’s later disavowal of the score—ensured that the opera was shelved and never again staged during Wagner’s lifetime. Only in this Bicentennial year has the opera been performed at Bayreuth, defying Wagner’s ban on performances of his early works at his self-consecrated musical temple. Its famously-finicky creator’s vote of no confidence notwithstanding, Das Liebesverbot is an enjoyable opera that reveals much about Wagner’s development as a composer and dramatist. Wagner was right to grant his later operas pride of place in his affections, but his dismissal of Das Liebesverbot was a disservice. This wonderful recording from Oehms Classics rectifies the injustice suffered by Das Liebesverbot during the past 180 years. Perhaps this injustice is unintentionally perpetuated by stating that the strong work from Maestro Weigle and his cast of soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists in this performance of Das Liebesverbot inspires the wish that Wagner’s mature operas consistently enjoyed recordings of similar quality.

Frankfurter Neue Presse

Eine Liebesnacht in Palermo

Die Produktion der Oper Frankfurt geriet zum Sängerfest. Unter der Leitung von Sebastian Weigle wurde das frühe Werke mit Lust und Leidenschaft angegangen.

Eine “Große komische Oper” soll “Das Liebesverbot” sein. Weil Richard Wagner jedoch nicht lustig und auch kein Humorist war, sondern ein grüblerisch-grimmiger Zeitgenosse voll bewölkter Sehnsüchte und anklagender Unerlöstheit, funktioniert der Titel nicht. Bis heute bleibt dieses frühe Werk eine Randerscheinung; die Oper Frankfurt bietet es zweimal konzertant an, um es zum kommenden Wagner-Jubeljahr auch auf einer CD zu verewigen.

Typisch Wagner ist die Vermischung von literarischen Vorlagen, aus denen er den Text zimmerte. Seine Quellen sind Shakespeare (“Maß für Maß”), Wilhelm Heinse und Heinrich Laube, seine Themen freie Liebe gegen staatliche Repression, gepaart mit Intrigen, Erpressungen und Liebeleien. Letztlich aber geht es, wie in allen seinen Opern, um ihn, Wagner, selbst!

Friedrich, kaiserlicher Statthalter in Palermo, hat den Karneval verboten, um Zucht und Ordnung wiederherzustellen. Als erster wird der sündige Claudio zum Tode verurteilt. Seine Schwester Isabella, “Die Novize von Palermo” (so der Untertitel der Oper), und ihr Geliebter Luzio verleiten Friedrich jedoch, um einer Liebesnacht willen gegen seine eigenen Gesetze zu verstoßen – dennoch schenkt ihm das Volk das Leben, das Liebesverbot wird aufgehoben, der Karneval mit allen Risiken und Nebenwirkungen gefeiert.

Theatralische Wucht

Die Qualität des Wagnerschen Libretto führt nicht selten in die Nähe holpriger Büttenreden, es gelingt der Musik auch nicht immer, die Rhythmen der Reime geschmeidig zu adaptieren; hier lugt ein wenig “Freischütz” hervor, dort etwas “Parsifal”, auch instrumentale Effekte, wie sie später im “Ring” wieder begegnen. Dennoch: Theatralische Wucht und der Wille zu Visionärem sind spürbar und wegen der üppigen Dynamik auch bis in die letzte Reihe des Großen Saales zu verfolgen.

Hier, in der Alten Oper, entwickelt sich ein Sängerfest ohnegleichen. Elf Partien sind zu besetzen. Simon Bode, Franz Mayer, Kihwan Sim, Anna Ryberg und Julian Prégardien gefallen in ihren kleineren Rollen. Der kauzig-trockene Thorsten Grümbel (Brighella), der empfindsame Tenor Charles Reid (Claudio) und die leicht dunkel timbrierte Anns Gabler (Mariana, Friedrichs schnöde verstoßene Ehefrau) bilden die verlässlichen Pfeiler des Ensembles; Peter Bronder (Luzio), mit kräftig gleißendem Tenor, und Michael Nagy als baritonal imposante Statthalter-Erscheinung sind die Hauptdarsteller. Eine Sensation ist Christiane Libor als Isabella: eine kräftige, konditionsstarke Sopranstimme mit unbändiger Lust am Erklimmen und Verstrahlen hoher Töne. Sebastian Weigle feuert das Opern- und Museumsorchester an; bei aller Präzision besonders in den Tempi und ihren beweglichen Wechseln merkt man, dass für alle das Stück neu ist, es wird viel in die Noten geschaut und schon auch mal zu früh eingesetzt.

Der von Matthis Köhler einstudierte Chor singt klangstark, beherrscht die rap-artige Textdeklamation und meistert bravourös die rhythmischen Klippen. Starker Beifall belohnt eine virtuose und leidenschaftliche Darbietung; es bleibt die Erkenntnis, dass auch im Falle Wagner kein Meister vom Himmel gefallen ist.

ANDREAS BOMBA | 04.05.2012


The opening bars of the overture on this recording are absolutely electrifying and thus make a terrific introduction to a work that has obviously been thoroughly prepared for the concert performances that provide the material.

At the age of 21 Richard Wagner composed this work within a three-month span. He was inspired by the general theme of sexual hypocrisy that permeates Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and what he experienced in contemporary Germany. The full title of the opera is Das Liebesverbot, oder der Noviz von Palermo (“The Ban on Love, or the Novice of Palermo. The novice is Isabella who must intercede with the puritanical governor, Friedrich, to save the life of her brother, Claudio, who is sentenced to death for impregnating his fiancée. Friedrich agrees to spare the brother, but only if Isabella will sleep with him. This is just the beginning of the complications that arise. The young Wagner made drastic changes to Shakespeare’s play (it is termed a “problem play” which basically means it doesn’t really work), notably reducing the tiresome lead role to a silent walk-on at the finale. He also cut several characters, but added one of his own, the bizarrely name Pontio Pilato, the manager of a bar. He also changed the venue from Vienna to Palermo, where what he termed the “free sensuality” of the Sicilians is being suppressed by a prudish German governor. He thus used the work to take cheeky potshots at the mores of the day.

Frankfurt Opera assembled an eminently suitable cast for the work. The four tenors (Peter Bronder, Charles Reid, Franz Meyer and Julian Prégardien) are well differentiated as are the three soprano voices(Christiane Libor, Anna Gabler and Anna Ryberg). If Michael Nagy in the bass-baritone role of Friedrich makes his fine voice sound more dignified than pompous he gets his comeuppance when tricked into having sex with…his own wife! Christiane Libor, who has sung both Sieglinde and Brunnhilde, is a staunch, expressive Isabella, a heroine who is supposedly a paragon of virginal virtue, but resorts to her own set of subterfuges and ends up marrying the dissolute friend of her dissolute brother.

One of the most startling passages in the work comes at the beginning of Act I, Scene two, when we are introduced to Isabella in her cloister. Nuns sing a Salve Regina to music used eight years and three operas later in Tannhäuser, and there is also a pre-echo of Parsifal, almost 50 years in the future. Not only did Wagner later use musical motifs from this work, but the big issue of sacred vs profane love permeated his oeuvre. (Another telling point: Wagner specifies a cloister of “Elisabeth”, presumably Saint Elisabeth of Hungary; this is not mentioned in Shakespeare, but can be seen as another pre-echo of Tannhäuser.)

Wagner later dismissed the work as being too influenced by Italian and French models. What comes clear, though, is much influence from Beethoven’s Fidelio, with hints also from Weber’s Der Freischütz. Far from abandoning the work after its unsuccessful premiere in 1834, for a time he shopped the work around to various opera houses and even started preparing a French version for Paris.

Sebastian Weigle and his Frankfurt company have already released their performance of Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen and upcoming is a recording of Rienzi. Of the three, Das Liebesverbot gives more than a few clear indications as to what the mature Wagner would eventually produce. Wagnerites will find much of interest here.

The recording’s only rival might be Wolfgang Sawallisch’s from 1995, recently re-released (along with Die Feen and Rienzi) on the Orfeo label. The recording from 1962 under Robert Heger is just two hours in length, so is obviously severely cut.

A big drawback, however, is the absence of a translation of the libretto. This doesn’t matter so much with a release of a frequently-recorded opera, but it is a pity in the case of a work that deserves to be more widely known and understood. (A libretto in German is available online. I tried using Google’s translation tool, but a language I can only call Gernglish emerged.) The opera is stage-worthy, and is certainly a lot more fun than the Shakespeare play.

Michael Johnson

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