A classic example of German heavy-handedness is the fact that Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is supposed to be a comedy, but few people know that Wagner composed other comic opera, his second opera actually (after Die Feen), Das Liebesverbot, inspired by Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The action takes place, in the libretto, in Palermo (whereas the play is set in Vienna, and one can see the young composer’s intent of producing an Italianate atmosphere here). This fact alone makes the opera an interesting experience – although Wagner proved to have understood the formulae of opera buffa, he struggled a bit with bel canto (his attempts at writing florid lines often sound awkward) and with strophic stucture (the repeats often give the impression of overstaying their welcome). However, the quality of the music is impressive. Sometimes, it seems like the upgraded version of Donizetti minus the spontaneous melodic invention and the comic timing. At its best, such as in the Isabella/Dorella/Luzio act II trio, it is truly funny and musically effective. And you still gets to find some ideas later recycled in Tannhäuser! Why is it not more often staged then? As with Die Feen, Wagner requires for Das Liebesverbot impossible voices – Bellinian voices in singers who can also tackle German declamatory style (can we really blame Wilhelmine Schroeder-Devrient for that?).
As almost everybody, I know this opera from Wolfgang Sawallisch’s live recording from Munich. There one can already hear how exhausting it is to sing these roles and how the German cast is uncomfortable with the virtuosistic writing. They sing with utmost conviction nonetheless under Sawallisch’s galvanic conducting – an orchestral tour de force from the Bayerische Staatsoper orchestra.
The fact that the concert performance heard this evening in Frankfurt’s Alte Oper is going to be commercially released is something of a mystery to me. The exceptional cast, essential to make this music work (think of Bellini’s Norma with a so-so cast…), has not been gathered here – actually, some singers were rather below standard. That was a pity, for the Frankfurter Opernorchester played very well, offering aptly bright, lean sonorities under Sebastian Weigle’s agile, balanced and stylish conducting. I had never before been in the Alte Oper and maybe had a bad seat, but I found the acoustic awful: the orchestral sound could not bloom and louder dynamics brought about a noisy, brassy quality. Singers’ voices too suffered in the unflattering hall. Maybe because of that Weigle seemed a bit too self-controlled, too well-behaved in comparison to Sawallisch – in an opera about carnival, passion and fun!
In the impossibly difficult role of Isabella, the invaluable Christiane Libor, a champion of early Wagner operas, offered an exciting performance. Her big creamy flexible lyric soprano has the necessary heft for the occasional exposed dramatic acuti, and she sang with unfailing good taste, imagination and sense of humor. She would sometimes understandably sound off-steam (far less than Sabine Hass in the Munich recording), but if my memory doesn’t fail me, she was in more exuberant shape as Ada in Minkowski’s Die Feen in Paris in 2009. In any case, I still don’t understand why her career has been relatively modest so far.
As Mariana, Anna Gabler sang with poise and sensitiveness with her mezzo-ish soprano that opens up in floaty tones in the high notes. If Pamela Coburn had not been so ideally cast in Munich, I would have been more impressed. The role of Dorella requires a brighter toned soprano than Anna Ryberg, who was too often inaudible. When it comes to these almost unsingable tenor roles, one would need a Gedda and a Wunderlich to do them justice. There are no new Geddas nor new Wunderlichs, but there are more acceptable options around. In the romantic leading-man role of Luzio, Peter Bronder was at least loud enough, but one did not need to read the program to see that Mime is his usual role. As Claudio, Charles Reid aptly sang in Italianate style, but seemed nervous, showed limited volume and fought with his high notes. Julian Prégardien (Pilato) was the one tenor in the cast with a natural, pleasant voice, but the high register is still a bit stiff. Simon Bode (Antonio) has a curiously boyish voice – if he can master tonal colouring, he might be a firm-toned Evangelist in Bach’s Passionen. Here it all lacks body and roundness.
In the key role of Friedrich, Michael Nagy sang with richness and musicianship. As much as with Hermann Prey in Munich, one feels that a voice a tad more heroic would make the role far more interesting. Last but not least Thorsten Grümbel was a brilliant Brighella. He is a singer I would like to hear again.
Considering the opera’s length and the strenuous roles, I understand that it has probably never been performed without cuts. This evening a bit more generous than in Sawallisch’s live recording (of a staged performance).