Published at 12:01AM, October 28 2015
The jangling of tambourine and castanets that inaugurates Das Liebesverbot tells us that we are not in Richard Wagner’s usual territory. The Ban on Love was his second opera, written when the composer was 23, and its two earliest performances were fiascos: the singers didn’t know the music or words, there were fist-fights backstage and on the second night the audience was just three people: Wagner’s landlady, her husband and a Chasidic Jew (perhaps the grudge began here).
Wagner washed his hands of the opera and it is one of his three early works that are not permitted at Bayreuth. You can at least look to Liebesverbot for the ingredients that would later bubble away in Wagner’s philosophical stews. The ban on love, as it is decreed by Friedrich, the German governor of Palermo (the opera is based onMeasure for Measure, but the Bard has been bastardised) is really a ban on sex. At least that’s how the line was delivered by Friedrich’s fulminating chief of police, Brighella (Nicholas Folwell) in this Chelsea Opera Group (COG) exhumation.
So in one sense we are already in the land of Meistersinger or Tannhäuser, where sacred love, as expressed by the reluctant nun Isabella, runs up against the profane kind practised by Lucio, who loves Isabella, and by Isabella’s brother Claudio, condemned for impregnating his lover. Palermo’s proscribed carnival becomes both a symbol of necessary freedom and of passion in excess.
Musically, however, Wagner is some way off working out how to be Wagner. He was having his bel-canto moment, attempting elaborate, lyrical arias, formal set-piece duets and boisterously Mediterranean ensembles.
Yet while aiming for Bellini’s poise, he created a baggy dramedy with thick, ungainly scoring. Having simplified Shakespeare, Wagner’s plotting gets bogged down in a rambling first half, only to fill in all the plot holes rather perfunctorily in the skittish finale.
COG’s performance was best when it aimed for drama rather than the comedy. Anthony Negus drew muscular playing from the orchestra. As heroic Isabella Helena Dix took everything the music threw at her and provided valiantly shining tone throughout, matched for power by Kirstin Sharpin’s Marianne.
David Soar’s moody Friedrich had clout, and of the two Palermo gentlemen unable to zip it up, Peter Hoare’s Claudio coped better with his high-lying music than Paul Curievici’s likeable but strained Luzio. The Royal Opera, reportedly planning a 2017 staging, has a stiff challenge ahead.