The Opéra National du Rhin mounted the 22-year old Richard Wagner’s komische oper, “Das Lieberverbot” [the Ban on Love]” in a new production conceived by director Mariame Clément.
The opera is roughly based on the Shakespeare play Measure for Measure, although only a few of Measure’s characters – Isabella, her brother Claudio, Mariana and Lucio are retained in Wagner’s extensively reworked plot lines. Wagner moved the opera to Sicily at Carnival time, while Clément chose to stage all the action in a unit set that represents the character Danieli’s cheerful inn.
[Below: the unit set for “Das Liebesverbot”; edited image, based on a copyrighted Klara Beck photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
Robert Bork’s Friedrich
Illinois-born bass-baritone Robert Bork sang the role of the opera’s protagonist, Friedrich.
Bork, whose European-based career has included major “mature” Wagner roles, proved to be an excellent choice for this role. Bork’s dark lower register added heft to Friedrich’s soul-searching Soliloquy, its four-note motive reminding me of the Dutchman’s Die Frist ist um in “Die Fliegende Holländer”.
A puritanical royal Austrian official, Friedrich has banned Sicily’s popular carnivals and declared extra-marital sex to be a capital offense. When Isabella pleads with him to spare her condemned brother Claudio’s life, Isabella becomes the object of Friedrich’s sexual desire.
[Below: Friedrich (Robert Bork), in his soliloquy, is troubled by the course of action upon which he is set; edited image, based on a copyrighted Klara Beck photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
The Soliloquy contains the beautiful aria Ja, glühend, wie des Südens Hauch, the melodious second theme of the opera’s lively overture that Bork sang eloquently.
[Below: Friedrich (Robert Bork, center), caught violating his own draconian laws is restrained by Antonio (Peter Kirk, left) and Angelo (Jaroslav Kitala, right); edited image, based on a copyrighted Alain Kaiser photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
Marion Ammann’s Isabella
Swiss soprano Marion Ammann sang the role of Isabella. Ammann’s Isabella impressively negotiated the frequent high tessitura of the role. Her duet with Bork’s Friedrich was beautifully done (yet another “Liebesverbot” set piece that clearly influenced “Holländer”, presaging the music of the Dutchman-Senta duet). Ammann’s melodious Ich spiele mit dem Tod wie mit den sieg! sung as part of a duet with Mariana was also memorable.
[Below: Isabella (Marion Ammann, left), in her carnival gown, has devised a plan to avoid taking part herself in an unwanted sexual encounter, unbeknownst to Luzio (Benjamin Hulett, seated on couch below) who himself loves Isabella; edited image, based on a copyrighted Klara Beck photograph, courtesy of the Opéra du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
When Friedrich proposes Isabella’s seduction in exchange for her brother Claudio’s life, she devises a scheme of disguises to substitute his legal wife Mariana for herself.
Benjamin Hulett’s Lucio
English lyric tenor Benjamin Hulett performed the role of Lucio – the chief proponent of the Sicilian carnival merriment that Bork’s Friedrich has banned. Hulett’s part contains some of the opera’s most cheerful music (incorporating the Carnival music that is the main theme of the opera’s overture). Memorable was Hulett’s singing the aria Ihr junges Volk, macht euch heran, whose recurring tralalalala, Hulett dispatched ardently.
[Below: Lucio (Benjamin Hulett, right) defends the rights of the Sicilians to enjoy their pleasures over the objections of their Austrian occupiers; edited image, based on a copyrighted Klara Beck photograph, courtesy of the Opéra du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
Lucio has many of the plot functions in “Liebesverbot” as his equivalent did in Measure for Measure except that in the opera Lucio and Isabella (in quite a departure from the original source) fall in love and decide to get married at opera’s end.
Thomas Blondelle’s Claudio
English tenor Thomas Blondelle sang the role of Claudio, possessing a lyric voice with a baritonal quality that added eloquence to Claudio’s second act soliloquy.
[Below: Claudio (Thomas Blondelle, front center) is pronounced guilty of violating newly promulgated laws against out-of-wedlock sexual activity as a horrified Pontio Pilato (Andreas Jaeggi, behind him, left) reacts; edited image, based on a copyrighted Klara Beck photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
The one character in both the Shakespeare and Wagner versions of the story who faces a death sentence, there is dramatic interest to the confrontation between Claudio and his sister Isabella.
Agnieszka Slawinska’s Mariana
Polish soprano Agnieszka Slawinska took the part of Mariana, Friedrich’s abandoned wife, who disguises herself as Isabella in a sexual encounter with her estranged husband.
Slawinska made a strong impression in her interchanges with Ammann’s Isabella, particularly in the beautifully sung second act duet in which both are disguised in a similar costume. Slawinska was affecting in Mariana’s aria Welch wunderbar’ Erwarten.
[Below: Mariana (Agnieszka Slawinska) has disguised herself to take part in a sexual encounter with her estranged husband; edited image, based on a copyrighted Klara Beck photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
Wolfgang Bankl’s Brighella and Hanne Roos’ Dorella
In composing “Liebesverbot” Wagner utilized features of the Italian buffo comedy, particularly the incorporation of a comic “servant class” characters who become a romantic “item”.
Belgian soprano Hanne Roos, sang the part of Isabella’s friend Dorella who bewitches the Friedrich’s slow-witted deputy Brighella, played by Austrian bass-baritone Wolfgang Bankl.
Roos’ and Bankl’s wonderfully performed duet was a highlight of the show. Its lively melody is in the spirit of Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” (which premiered only four years before “Liebesverbot”).
Although Bankl’s Brighella is supposed to be enforcing the ban against Sicilian carnivals, Roos’ Dorella so infatuates him that he is persuaded to get his own Carnival costume.
[Below: Dorella (Hanne Roos, upper left) and Brighella (Wolfgang Bankl, upper right) are in their Carnival clothes while Luzio (Benjamin Hulett, bottom left) and Friedrich (Robert Bork, bottom right) are in a funk; edited image, based on a copyrighted Klara Beck photograph, courtesy of the Opera National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
Other Cast and Crew Members
English tenor Peter Kirk and Polish bass-baritone Jaroslaw Kitala were respectively Antonio and Angelo, who added hilarity (and good singing) as they donned different costumes in various scenes in the show, including sailor uniforms in an homage to Bernstein’s “On the Town”.
German bass-baritone Norman Patzke sang the role of the innkeeper Danieli and Swiss tenor Andreas Jaeggi hammed it up in the buffo role of Pontio Pilate. The Artistes de complément were Christophe Bach, Lucas Bleger, Martine Boulanger, Macha Bunzli, Ria Cerfon, Anne Cordary, Paul Derange, Paul-Nathan Douvier, Dominique Grylla, Jean-Francois Martin, Frédéric Schalck, Anne Somot and Christine Wolff.
[Below: Brighella (Wolfgang Bankl, center in red-checkered shirt) confronts a group of Sicilians (Artistes de complément) in Carnival costumes as Wagnerian characters; edited image, based on a copyrighted Klara Beck photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
The Orchestra philharmonique de Strasbourg and Choirs de l’Opéra National du Rhin were led by German conductor Constantin Trinks in an affectionate performance of Wagner’s work.
Mariame Clément’s New Production
The new production, reportedly the French premiere of the work, was created by French director Mariame Clément. Her production utilizes a unit set, created, as were the costumes, by German designer Julia Hansen.
The set represents not just Danieli’s Sicilian inn, but the cloister in which Isabella is a novice. Here, Clément’s departure from Wagner’s libretto is most dramatic, because, instead of cloistered nuns, Isabella and the members of her order are changed into the waitress staff of Danieli’s Inn. In Wagner’s libretto, Isabella is a novice in the same cloister that Friedrich’s abandoned wife, Mariana, is seeking entry.
[Below: The nuns of Isabella’s order work as waitresses in Danieli’s Inn; edited image, based on a copyrighted Alain Kaiser photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg.]
Just as the Bard would have found Wagner’s changes in the Bard’s original plot for “Measure for Measure” unusual, if not incredulous, so Wagner would have found Mariame Clément’s interpretaton of a convent scene that is so explicit in the opera’s libretto and score. The accompanying music is built around the Dresden Amen of German liturgy that recurs again in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” and “Parsifal”.
But noting the dissonance between production and libretto for the cloister scene and suspecting this production will not be the final say on how that scene should be staged, there is much that is admirable (and fun) about the production.
My particular favorite moments were those in which the choristers, who had lively assignments throughout the opera, came onstage in their Carnival costumes, dressed as characters from Wagner’s later operas – Rhinemaidens, Mastersingers, Siegfried and Fafner (in dragon), Parsifal, Gurnemanz, the Valkyries, the Nibelungs and on and on. This was brilliant work on the part of designer Julia Hansen and the Strasbourg team.
The Opéra National du Rhin has done a great service in the promotion of an operatic rarity, that should be better known by the opera-going public.
The 22-year old Wagner is clearly influenced by Mozart, Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, and Italian operas in the styles of both Bellini and Donizetti (as well as some German and French works that are now even less often performed than “Liebesverbot”).
Importantly, one can easily detect the musical styles Wagner employed in “Die Fliegende Holländer”, “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin” and, for the convent scene, even as late as “Parsifal”.