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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Liebesverbot (1836) [148.30]
Michael Nagy (baritone) - Friedrich; Christiane Libor (soprano) - Isabella; Charles Reid (tenor) - Claudio; Peter Bronder (tenor) - Luzio; Anna Gabler (soprano) - Mariana; Thorsten Grümbel (bass) - Brighella; Simon Bode (tenor) - Antonio; Franz Meyer (baritone) - Angelo; Kihwan Sim (baritone) - Danieli; Anna Ryberg (soprano) - Dorella; Julian Prégardien (tenor) - Pontio Pilato
Frankfurt Opera Chorus; Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra/Sebastian Weigle
rec. Alte Oper, Frankfurt, 2 and 4 May 2012
OEHMS CLASSICS OC 942 [3 CDs: 36.37 + 47.28 + 64.25] 

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