Das Liebesverbot

Ivor Bolton
Coros y Orquesta del Teatro Real de Madrid
5 March 2016
Teatro Real Madrid
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
FriedrichChristopher Maltman
LuzioPeter Lodahl
ClaudioIlker Arcayürek
AntonioDavid Alegret
AngeloDavid Jerusalem
IsabellaManuela Uhl
MarianaMaria Miró
BrighellaAnte Jerkunica
DanieliIsaac Galán
DorellaMaría Hinojosa
Pontio PilatoFrancisco Vas

An Outstanding Staging in Madrid of a Rarely-Seen Early Wagner Opera

Das Liebesverbot was Richard Wagner’s first performed opera although not the first one he composed; Die Feen was never staged in the composer’s lifetime. The premiere took place in Magdeburg in 1836, and it was a resounding failure, to the point that it was withdrawn after the first performance. It has been revived on just a few occasions, the most successful of which was a performance conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch in Munich in 1983 on the centenary of the composer’s death. However, more than one theatre nowadays has shown interest in these operas by the young Wagner. Das Liebesverbot was done a few years ago in concert form at the Bayreuth Sports Palace, and is performed annually in Leipzig. In the summer of 2013 there was a concert version at the Peralada Festival.

A comic opera, Das Liebesverbot follows the conventions of French and Italian opera of its time, but then suddenly there are motifs that point to the Wagner of years to come. Without entering into comparisons with the great Wagnerian works, it’s a pleasant opera, far from being a masterwork, but it surely does not deserve to have fallen into oblivion. For me the biggest problem lies, as in many other Wagner operas, in the libretto, which was written by the composer himself. The original opera has more than 4 hours of music (and not very original, by the way). In 1983 in Munich, Sawallisch and Ponnelle made the right decision and cut the opera back to just over two-and-a-half hours, which is the version staged at the Teatro Real.

The production by Kasper Holten is excellent: fun, imaginative, lively, and beautifully suited to a comic opera. The sets consist of a house with multiple rooms and stairs which, based upon lighting and the imagination, serves as the whorehouse El Corso, a convent, and even a prison. The colourful costumes respond perfectly to the demands of this opera, or rather operetta (and very near to a musical). To this must be added a superb job of lighting and excellent choreography.

Mr. Holten’s direction is outstanding from beginning to end, narrating the story effectively and bringing the action up to modern times. The details are carefully tended, and a sense of humor is always present; Holten’s use of mobile phones on many occasions is remarkable. I would single out the scene of the trial, or the one of the trio of Isabella, Luzio and Dorella on a conveyor belt, or the scene of Friedrich in his room: all of them were excellent. The final appearance of the King, who is none other than Angela Merkel, is a real coup de théâtre. The actors are well-directed, as are the extras and choristers. In short, it’s a great stage production.

Ivor Bolton was on the podium with the first cast, and his reading was well-suited to the work. As I mentioned, this opera has nothing to do with Wagner’s mature oeuvre, where the conductor is fundamental. Mr. Bolton cancelled the following day, and the replacement was his assistant, Francesc Prat. His conducting was a pleasant surprise, and brighter than that of Mr. Bolton. The tempos were faster, especially in the first part of the opera, which contributed to the happy outcome.

The cast of this opera is large and not easy to cover: stars will seldom be willing to learn the part for just one performance. There is always the risk of cancellations, and Teatro Real solved that by offering a double cast. Given the circumstances, it seems almost luxurious to have two major singers in the main roles, Isabella and Friedrich, at least in the first cast.

Isabella was interpreted by German soprano Manuela Uhl, who is often present in major opera houses singing operas by Wagner and Richard Strauss. Her performance must be considered as brilliant in every aspect. The second Isabella was German soprano Sonja Gornik, who offered a voice that is well-suited to the character, and exhibited good stage skills too. Christopher Maltman was Friedrich, the Governor of Palermo, and we were able to enjoy his stage and vocal performance during the first act, while he almost ran out of voice in Act II. Something unexpected happened, and at the intermission there was an announcement of indisposition. British baritone Leigh Melrose in the second cast was excellent on stage and demonstrated some extraordinary acting skills. He also seemed to be having a good time himself. Vocally, he did quite well, with an appealing voice, although he sometimes tends to open sounds.

The biggest problem of this opera lies in the tenors (Luzio and Claudio), who have much to sing. Wagner wrote passages for them that are almost inhuman. Luzio was played by Peter Lodahl, who was a tenorino with little interest. The terrifying high Cs in his big scene were solved in pure falsetto. As Claudio, Isabella’s brother, we had Turkish tenor Ilker Arcayürek, who wasn’t much better than his colleague. Peter Bronder was the second Luzio, and did not seem a good choice to me. He’s an excellent character tenor, one of the best interpreters of Mime and Herod, but his vocal characteristics are not what’s required for Luzio. His voice is wide and not of great quality, but he is an excellent actor. As for high Cs, he just ignored them. Georgian Mikheil Sheshabiridze was the second Claudio, better than his colleague in the first cast, but still rather modest.

Ante Jerkunica did nicely in the part of Brighella, the Chief of Police, with a sonorous voice. In the second cast, Martin Winkler almost stole the show with his Brighella. The rest of the cast was quite good. Maria Hinojosa was a solid Dorella, in terms both of singing and acting. Soprano Maria Miró sang Marianna’s aria with gusto, but was a little acid at the top. There were two more tenors, David Alegret (Antonio) and a very amusing Francisco Vas (Pontius Pilate). David Jerusalem was a sonorous Angelo with an attractive voice, and Isaac Galán impressed in the role of Daniel.

José M. Irurzun | 06/03/2016


The Teatro Real of Madrid, the Royal Opera Covent Garden and the Teatro Colón of Buenos Aires have teamed up to produce a major rarity to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It is a production of Richard Wagner’s first-ever produced opera, Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love”) from 1836, with a libretto by Wagner based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. That the evening comes off largely as a success is due entirely to the passionate conducting of Ivor Bolton and the committed singing of the cast. Kasper Holten’s stage direction is a mistake from start to finish and shows little understanding of Shakespeare’s play or of Wagner’s adaptation of it.

One reason Das Liebesverbot is so seldom performed is that it had one of the most disastrous premieres in opera. The opening itself conducted by the 23-year-old, then-unknown composer was poorly attended, a lead singer forgot the words and the opera had to be cancelled before the second performance never to be staged again in Wagner’s lifetime. Another reason for its neglect is that the work very obviously does not sound like the Wagner people know from Der fliegende Holländer (1843) onward. For people who want Wagner to sound like Wagner, this would be a problem, but for others it is fascinating to hear what Wagner sounded like before he found his voice. The dominance of Italian and French opera is surprising whereas the influence of Carl Maria von Weber is more expected.

Given how much a play by Shakespeare has to be cut and condensed to become an opera libretto, Wagner succeeds in creating a version that is eminently stage-worthy and truer to the original than one might suppose. He shifts the action from Shakespeare’s Vienna to Palermo, Sicily, in the 16th century. Shakespeare’s Duke Vincentio is not the chief power in the city but the absent King of Germany. His representative is the German Friedrich, thus taking the place of Angelo in Shakespeare. Contrary to what one expects from Wagner, these changes make the story deliberately anti-German. In Act 1 the Chorus sings about Friedrich “Der deutsche Narr, auf, lacht ihn aus, / das soll die ganze Antwort sein; / schickt ihn in seinen Schnee nach Haus, / dort laßt ihn keusch und nüchtern sein” (“The German fool, just ridicule him, that is the only answer; send him back home to his snow and let him be chaste and sober there”). Wagner turns Shakespeare’s play into a satire of a strict and austere ruler attempting to curb the natural desires of a fun-loving and exuberant people.

Like Angelo in Shakespeare, Friedrich has to impose someone else’s rules on the populace, though still rules he agrees with. Sex itself is condemned and Claudio, as in Measure for Measure, is to be made an example. As in Shakespeare, Claudio’s friend Luzio (“Lucio” in Shakespeare) convinces Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice in a cloister, to plead with Friedrich for Claudio’s life. Unlike Shakespeare, Mariana is introduced right from the start. Wagner makes her Friedrich’s wife whom he abandoned and Isabella goes to her first meeting with Friedrich armed with this knowledge. When Friedrich agrees to free Claudio if Isabella will sleep with him, Isabella herself thinks of the bed-trick of substituting Mariana to reveal Friedrich’s hypocrisy. The greatest injury Wagner does to Shakespeare is to have Isabella fall in love with Luzio, thus drawing her rather too easily back into the sinful world that one supposes she hoped to leave behind by entering the cloister.

As would become standard in later German operetta, Wagner pairs the serious conflict of Friedrich and Isabella with the comic conflict of Friedrich’s Chief of Police Brighella and Isabella’s former maid, now a prostitute, Dorella. Brighella is Wagner’s expanded version of Shakespeare’s Elbow and Dorella is a version of Lucio’s future wife Kate Keepdown, who never appears in the play. Rather than Mistress Overdone running a brothel as in Shakespeare, Wagner has Danieli running a wine bar where both Dorella and his enforcer Pontio Pilato (replacing Shakespeare’s Pompey) are employed.

Das Liebesverbot is often criticized as a mishmash of Italian, French and German opera, but under conductor Ivor Bolton’s baton it did not appear like a mishmash at all. Instead, Bolton made it clear that Wagner associated the various operatic traditions with various types of characters. Thus, the music for the Palermo populace unsurprisingly recalled the wilder music of Donizetti and is not that different from music that characterizes the corrupt court of the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851). The lower class characters like Brighella and Dorella also sing in the Italianate style. When the comedy turns toward satire the music turns toward France and begins to anticipate the style of Jacques Offenbach.

For nobler characters like Isabella, Claudio, Mariana and, importantly, Friedrich, Wagner’s music harks back clearly to German Romantic opera. Bolton linked Isabella’s ardent, high-lying arias back to Weber’s Agathe in Der Freischütz (1821) and, when Isabella’s fervour pushed her into more ecstatic realms, Bolton linked her forward to Senta in Der fliegende Holländer and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser (1845). What is especially fascinating is how Wagner does not treat Friedrich’s inward struggle between duty and desire as comic at all. Though the role is written for a baritone, Friedrich provides foretastes of such tortured heroes as the Dutchman himself and of Tannhäuser, who, after all, begins his opera in the clutches of Venus herself. Friedrich’s central debate with himself in Act 2, “So spät, und noch kein Brief von Isabella?”, becomes the most traditionally Wagnerian aria of the opera.

Bolton’s insight into Wagner’s score reveals that Wagner was already at the outset of his career associating certain styles of music with certain themes and types of characters. This kind of typing of music to reflect meaning, of course, is a step towards the creation of Leitmotifs. Das Liebesverbot even uses a full-blown Leitmotif related to impending doom which, as in Wagner’s later work is introduced by the brass.

The great pity of this production is that Bolton’s insights into the nature of Wagner’s musical language should be obscured by the insensitive, anything-for-a-joke direction of Kasper Holten. Things get off to a bad start right from the overture when a portrait of the young Wagner is projected on a drop in front of the set. As the music plays, we discover the portrait is really an animation which has Wagner raising his eyebrows, winking, grimacing and nodding along with the music. This sets the tone for the entire production where Bolton and the orchestra try to present the opera in the best light, while Holten does not.

The overture completed, the drop rises to reveal Steffen Aarfing’s unattractive set. For unknown reasons he has decided that Wagner’s Palermo looks like one of M.C. Escher’s architectural paradoxes in three dimensions. The main flaw with this concept is that the reason why Escher’s graphics succeed as paradoxes is because they are in two dimensions, not three. Aarfing has costumed the people of Palermo in modern dress with allusions to the Renaissance. In a vain attempt to be up to date, Holten has Friedrich announce “the ban on love” (i.e., sex, liquor, drugs and the Carnival) via Twitter with a projections of the iPhone announcement on either side of the Palermo set.

Holten seems to have no notion of the dark nature of Shakespeare’s play or of the ways that Wagner has preserved it in his opera. Shakespeare’s play may be classed as a comedy, but its treats the themes of misuse of power and Puritanic opposition to natural desire seriously. Even its supposedly happy ending is not all that happy.

Holten ignores the fact that Wagner has given Friedrich and Isabella comic parallels so that the scenes between the high-born characters can retain their seriousness. Holten shows us how Brighella (Ante Jerkunica) very comically succumbs to the sultry charms of Dorella (María Hinojosa), but doesn’t realize that the following scene between Friedrich and Isabella is meant to contrast with it. Wagner means to have two contrasting scenes on the same theme, not the same scene twice. One feels sorry for Christopher Maltman as Friedrich, whom Holten repeated has polishing his glasses so low down on his robe that it looks like he’s masturbating. Luckily, Manuela Uhl’s radiant Isabella remains untouched at least in this scene by Holten’s search for cheap jokes.

Uhl is not so lucky in a couple of Holten’s more foolish scenes. We first meet Isabella and Mariana (Maria Miró) is their shared cell singing a beautiful Weber-like duet in prayer. Holten has decided that Mariana is given to binge-eating to assuage her grief over Friedrich’s abandoning her. Therefore, during the duet, Uhl has to keep removing a bag of potato chips from Miró, who then sneaks them back for munching. First of all, why distract us from the singing? Second, why trivialize Mariana’s grief? And third, where does Mariana get her junk food in the convent?

Worse is the scene in the opera corresponding to Shakespeare’s Act 3, Scene 1, when Isabella visits Claudio (Ilker Arcayürek) in prison to tell him she will not give up her virginity to save him. Holten decides that this confrontation of utmost important should be sung via cellphone. In no way does two people singing into cellphones begin to equal the drama of a face-to-face confrontation, and one that would make more sense since Holten shows us that Isabella does know how to use a cellphone. (Besides, how is it that Claudio has one in prison?) As if this were not distracting enough, Holten has Claudio’s cell suspended over the stage so that when Claudio mistakenly does a celebratory dance, the whole cell sways back and forth.

Another example of Holten’s wilful substitution for his own childish sense of comedy for the more sublime comedy in Shakespeare and Wagner is Holten’s staging of Friedrich’s aria “So spät, und noch kein Brief von Isabella?”, the most serious and most traditionally Wagnerian in the opera. Holten has Friedrich address his distress at the plight of his soul to his teddy bear that he sleeps with at night.

Finally, in Wagner after the Palermitani stage a rebellion against the ban, Friedrich is exposed as a hypocrite and the the ban rescinded, we’re told the German King is arriving. In Holten’s version the King is Angela Merkel, a man in drag wearing a plastic Merkel mask, and she and her staff shower the populace with euros. As with other items thrown at the opera at random from Holten’s ragbag of ideas, this makes no sense. If Merkel ordered Friedrich to enforce austerity and he fails, why are the Germans rewarding Palermo’s disobedience?

At least the singing of most of the cast is superlative. Despite being characterized as a second Professor Unrat out of Heinrich Mann and being burdened with all sort of business to make Friedrich look as stupid as possible, Maltman gives a glorious vocal performance. Manuela Uhl makes the taxing role of Isabella seem effortless as she is required to extend her rich voice higher and higher into her upper register. Maria Miró’s bright soprano provided a fine contrast with Uhl’s darker hued voice and she seems justifiably uncomfortable with the foolish stage directions she had been given. Ante Jerkunica has a strong baritone and a fine sense of comedy that would make him an ideal Figaro. On the other hand, María Hinojosa’s Dorella, Peter Lodahl’s Luzio and Ilker Arcayürek’s Claudio all had fine voices but ones that did not match the other principals in strength and did not always cut through Wagner’s sometimes heavy orchestration.

The new production of Das Liebesverbot is thus both a joy and a frustration. It is a joy because Ivor Bolton’s obvious insight and enthusiasm for the opera galvanized both the Coro y Orquesta Titulares del Teatro Real and the soloists to produce a musically and dramatically impressive performance that swept away conventional dismissive notions of the work. In Bolton’s hands the opera turns out to be an eminently enjoyable and dramatically effective adaptation of a continuingly timely play by Shakespeare that does not deserve its obscurity whether it does or doesn’t sound like later Wagner. The production is also a frustration because Kasper Holten seems intent on undermining through his simplistic, muddleheaded direction all the good will Bolton generates for the work. If only the three opera companies involved could have chosen a director with a greater knowledge of the work and of Bolton’s insights, then Das Liebesverbot would stand a better chance of convincing people of its virtues.

Christopher Hoile | 06/03/2016


There are certainly very few chances to attend a live performance of Wagner’s second opera, Das Liebesverbot, considered even after its timid revival in the 1980s little short of a venial sin by a dazed and confused young genius. The Teatro Real has joined forces with the Royal Opera House and The Teatro Colón in an honest attempt to vindicate the opera’s far-fetched plot and eclectic score. This production will probably not make a major contribution to the restoration of this opera but one could also legitimately think that Das Liebesverbot has already had its fair share of opportunities to get into the repertoire.

Based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the opera tells the story of several lustful young men and women trying to celebrate carnival in Palermo, under the boot of a German governor, Friedrich. He is by far the most interesting character in the story, a sort of mixture between Don Pizarro and Scarpia, whose decision on banning love (in the least pastoral sense) triggers a playful revolution by the people of Palermo. The opera anticipates some of the topics that were to obsess Wagner throughout his life (customary limits to love, tormented opposition between carnality and redemption) but the plot is messy, full of contradictions and with under-developed characters. The music is an interesting (at least from an academic point of view) assimilation of bel canto, with constant echoes of Rossini, and integrates some of the innovative language that authors like Meyerbeer were developing at the time. The result is a clumsy comedy with some inspired music and an implausible plot that offered little of interest to the 1830s audience.

Kasper Holten’s production failed to showcase what Das Liebesverbot can offer to a 2016 audience. The orchestra played at its best, with good and polished sound and with contagious enthusiasm for the first time in the season. Even if Ivor Bolton gave a vivid rendition of the score, with quick tempi and vibrant accent, he did not find the unclassifiable tone that the score requires (he cannot be too harshly blamed, though). He rightly underlined the comic traits with a joyous touch of operetta and saturating sound in the tutti, favouring volume over contrast and colour. The chorus suffered a bit from the loud pit but sounded fine in the carnival scenes.

A more attractive cast would have raised the stakes of the performance, but no singer seemed willing (or able) to take the lead. Manuela Uhl is a fine singer with a powerful lyric soprano that makes her perfect for Wagner’s “blonde heroines”. Isabella, unfortunately, does not fall under this category, its vocal filiation being chiefly Italian, with plenty of bel canto elements. Uhl overcame bravely the trickiest agility parts but failed to impress where a bel canto soprano would have felt at ease. She offered a mock-heroic Isabella who certainly added to the show.

Christopher Maltman was brilliant as the awkward villain, Friedrich. He is a great actor and was the only one who offered an original and genuinely comic performance. Vocally, his lyric baritone lacked authority and even timbre, but he gave an overall good rendition. Bass Ante Jerkunica, an interesting voice, made the most of his funny judgement scene. Ilker Arcayürek was overwhelmed by the otherwise reasonable requirements of the beautifully written role of Claudio, and even lost his voice during the final duo with Isabella. The other tenor, of a very similar vocality, Peter Lodahl, had better fortune as Luzio.

Holten faced the daunting challenge of making an imperfect opera work on stage and, although he managed to offer an entertaining show, it was an overall unsuccessful attempt. He went for light and trivial comedy and compensated for the libretto’s irregular rhythm with agile stage solutions, such as the conveyor belt and the smartphone duet between Claudio and Isabella, everything supported by an Escherian set by Steffen Aarfing. The carnival scenes, on the other hand, lacked tension and skillful direction. Holten’s major limitation as director is his apparent preoccupation with pleasing everybody, with a constant fear of crossing the boundaries of the conventional. The ideas are there, outlined on stage, but something prevents their blooming. The anecdotic tribute to Wagner’s operas in the carnival or the resolution of the North-South opposition with the uncalled-for appearance of Angela Merkel at the end of the opera are good examples of this: toothless transgression without a coherent discourse. In the absence of full-blooded comedy, the show at least prompted a few smiles, which is more than Wagner could have reasonably expected.

Fernando Remiro | 24 February 2016

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A production by Kasper Holten