Das Liebesverbot

Chelsea Opera Group at Cadogan Hall, London, October 25

In his autobiography, Wagner spins a long comic anecdote about the travails attending the birth and brief career of his second completed opera, which was based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Das Liebesverbot had just one single performance at Magdeburg on 29 March 1836, when the (nearly) 23-year-old composer conducted it in circumstances that were apparently close to chaotic.

According to his version of events, a performance scheduled for the following night was cancelled when only three people turned up to see the show, and as many members of the cast became embroiled in a fist-fight over someone's affair with someone else's wife. Wagner subsequently disowned the piece as one of the follies of his youth. Its next outing took place in Munich in 1923, and there have not been many productions since. But there has been renewed interest of late, and a scheduled production in Madrid next February will in due course make its way to Covent Garden; so with this concert performance, conducted by the well-known Wagnerian Anthony Negus, Chelsea Opera Group stole a march on the Royal Opera.

Though on the long side even with some cuts, Wagner's 'grosse komische Oper ' makes a largely positive impression so long as one is not expecting much of it to sound like Wagner-as-we-know-hirn. He reused a phrase or two in Tannhäuser, and there are occasional chromatic passages that point to the musical preoccupations of his maturity; but in general its influences are Italian opera of the period (especially Bellini) and contemporary French composers such as Auber and the recently deceased Herold. On those terms, the result is an effective and well-written piece – though Wagner's inexperience leads him to score much of it too thickly, especially the grand ensembles.
Dramatically, its central theme is more characteristic. Wagner's own libretto transposes the action of the play from Vienna to 16th-century Palermo, where Friedrich – a German given the task of governing Sicily in his absence by the king, whose eventual return comes in a silent appearance right at the opera's close – is a stern moralist determined to clamp down on all pleasurable activities, notably love (for which read, of course, sex). Interestingly, for a piece written by a German nationalist, by far the least sympathetic character in the opera is a German outsider.

Friedrich was sung with focus and authority by David Soar, whose tensile instrument and forbidding presence were exactly what was required; even in this concert performance, he never stepped out of character for one moment. Helena Dix offered confident and articulate vocalism as Isabella, the nun-turned-intriguer who outwits him to save her errant brother Claudio, whom Peter Hoare represented with consistent skill.

Nicholas Folwell sought out the comic-grotesque potential of Friedrich's chief-of- police Brighella, while Kirstin Sharpin's Mariana and Elizabeth Cragg's Dorella produced fine vocalism in delineating their very different characters. Less even was Paul Curievici as the young nobleman Luzio, though once again he created a credible character and his best singing was excellent. The COG Chorus and Orchestra had a notably impressive evening.

Opera, January 2016