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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Das Liebesverbot
Friedrich, Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Lucio, Peter Lodahl (tenor)
Claudio, Ilker Arcayürek (baritone)
Antonio, David Alegret (tenor)
Angelo, David Jerusalem (baritone)
Isabella, Manuela Uhl (soprano)
Mariana, María Miró (soprano)
Brighella, Ante Jerkunica (baritone)
Dorella, María Hinojosa (soprano)
Pontio Pilato, Francisco Vas (tenor)
Chorus & Orchestra of the Teatro Real/Ivor Bolton
Kasper Holten (stage director)
Recorded live, Teatro Real, Madrid, 3 & 5 March 2017
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo; DTS 5.1
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1191D [160 mins]

It’s Wagner, yes, but not as you know him. Das Liebesverbot, Wagner’s second opera, was laughed off the stage after only one full performance (which is one more than Die Feen, his first opera, ever got) and so it has fallen by the wayside until a few more recent modern revivals.

The first thing everybody tells you about it is that it’s a world away from the mature Wagner, and that’s true, but only up to a point. It’s Wagner’s experiment with Italianate comedy, set in Sicily with a plot modelled after Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In many ways it’s Wagner doing his best Donizetti impression, with a buffo baritone, a high tenor in the leading lover role and more bel canto-style ensembles than you could shake a stick at. However, that doesn’t make it invalid. As a pastiche work it’s actually very impressive, and if it wasn’t sung in German you could easily mistake it for something more Mediterranean. Furthermore, it has shades of later Wagner, too. Sometimes these are explicit, such as the phrase from the convent scene that turns up in Tannhäuser’s Rome Narration, or stylistic, the big ensembles that end the acts aren’t a million miles from those that end each act of Tannhäuser or Lohengrin.

Nevertheless, you’re not going to come across it very often, and I’m pretty sure this is the only DVD of it out there (though, for a rarity, there are actually quite a few CD recordings, too). If you want to see it, therefore, you have a bit of a Hobson’s choice, even if you don’t go in for Kasper Holten’s vision. Late of London’s Royal Opera House, Holten came to Covent Garden with some extremely successful productions to his name, but didn’t make quite the splash that was hoped for. This Liebesverbot is symptomatic of many of the virtues and problems of his approach. One huge set serves for all the scenes, but it does so with great versatility, and a special credit should go to Steffen Aarfing for his designs. The simplicity of Isabella’s convent or the claustrophobia of Duke Friedrich’s room sit alongside a gaudy carnival scene or, as seen on the DVD cover, an eye-poppingly gaudy red-light district for the opening scene.

All that is great, but Holten can’t resist some of his too-clever-by-half ideas. His characters are obsessed with selfies and iPhones, something now so unoriginal as to be dull, and there is zero gain to the proclamations flashing up on everyone’s phone screen, as well as being projected down the side of the proscenium. The modern dress is fine, but he struggles to know what to do with the chorus beyond a few Wagnerian in-jokes, such as lots of horned helmets and even a Wotan costume in the carnival scene. Nor can he solve the problems thrown up by Wagner’s apprenticeship stagecraft, such as what on earth to do with the character of Dorella, who is important at the beginning but becomes sidelined as the piece goes on.

Musically, the cast is led by the ever-dependable Christopher Maltman, who gives a touch of magic to the rather archetypal figure of the wicked duke. Manuela Uhl struggles to settle into the ungrateful tessitura, but does a very good job once she does. Peter Lodahl, as the love interest, is a little screechy at the outset, but my ear became attuned to him as the film went on. Ante Jerkunica is a solid comic buffo before pretty much disappearing from the story. The smaller soprano roles are well taken too, with María Miró proving a good foil to the heroically chaste Isabella. The finest heroes, however, are the orchestra, who play the score as though it were Meistersinger, sounding like gods right from the sparkling overture to the jolly resolution. Ivor Bolton can’t ever have imagined himself conducting this score, but he takes to it like a duck to water and argues a very persuasive case for it.

So if this is the only Liebesverbot you’ll ever see then it’s actually a pretty solid one. The cost however (fairly steep for just one DVD), means you’ll need to be committed if you’re going to give it a go. There are, moreover, no extras. You can see José M. Irurzun’s review of the original staged production here.

Simon Thompson


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