Monday, 6 February 2017

Wagner - Das Liebesverbot (Madrid, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Das Liebesverbot (Madrid)

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2016

Ivor Bolton, Kasper Holten, Christopher Maltman, Peter Lodahl, Ilker Arcayürek, David Alegret, David Jerusalem, Manuela Uhl, María Miró, Ante Jerkunica, Isaac Galan, María Hinojosa, Francisco Vas

Opus Arte - Blu-Ray

Bold, brash, colourful and comic are not adjectives that you'll find applied to a Wagner opera very often, but Das Liebesverbot is most definitely not a typical Wagner opera. Written before the composer had found his own musical voice for the expression of his philosophy of the importance of art and mythology as a foundation for German culture, Wagner's earlier non-canonical work would have been more in the thrall of the Italian bel canto and French grand opéra. Meyerbeer's 5-Act epics would be the model for Wagner's subsequent opera Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen, but it's the much lighter touch of Bellini and Donizetti that can be detected in Das Liebesverbot.

Das Liebesverbot is notable also for being based on Shakespeare's comedy 'Measure for Measure'. It's not one of the playwright's more famous dramatic works and it seems to be one less likely to be suited for an operatic treatment. It deals with the Duke of Vienna, who has introduced harsh measures to deal with the growing problem of drunkenness, vice, licentious behaviour and the increasing number of establishments of ill-repute in the city. Going in disguise as a friar, the Duke leaves his deputy Lord Angelo to carry out his orders, wishing to see for himself how the law is implemented. He not only sees the unintended consequences of his laws, but he also sees how they can be misused by corrupt individuals for their own ends.

Like most adaptations of Shakespeare to opera, Das Liebesverbot isn't terribly faithful to the original. Wagner relocates the setting from Vienna to the hedonistic Palermo in Sicily, where the corrupt regime in charge of implementing the strict laws are the Governor Friedrich and his Chief of Police, Brighella. The opera version at least retains the characters central to the drama, if not its main players, as it's the relationship between Claudio and Juliet that is to bring the unintended consequences of the laws. As they are not yet married, Claudio has been arrested and condemned to death, the law effectively a ban on love - Das Liebesverbot. His friend Lucio brings the news to Claudio's sister Isabella, who is a nun in a convent. She goes to plead with the governor for the release of her brother, but Friedrich intends to take advantage of the vulnerable young woman's position and tries to seduce her.

If the drama isn't exactly the type of material you would normally associate with Wagner, there is perhaps some indication of his interest in the subject in how it relates to his anti-authoritarian and libertarian views. Even in this early work, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music as he would for all his operas, but otherwise there is very little that is recognisably Wagnerian about the subject or the musical treatment. If you can get past the idea that it has something of an academic workshop quality to it, or that it even comes across as a pastiche, Das Liebesverbot is a hugely enjoyable work, masterfully constructed to create a fine musical drama out of a difficult Shakespearean drama. Wagner works with the contrasting and inconstant tones of the drama, filling it with great melodies and racing rhythms, if not any particularly memorable arias.

Rather than try to integrate the work somehow into the Wagner universe, which seems an impossible task, Ivor Bolton and Kasper Holten instead do their best to capture the pace and dynamic of all its colourful scenes and the musical variety purely on its own terms. Visually, Holten's bold, stylised, cartoon-like approach suits the opéra-comique nature of the plot, with rolling platforms keeping things moving across the stage. The director struggles nonetheless to find ways to hold interest through some of Wagner's excesses. The duet of the meeting between Isabella and Claudio at the start of Act II, for example, is unnecessarily long drawn-out without any compensating musical qualities. Even with good direction, using mobile phones and text messages to try and catch the absurdities of the scene, it still drags.

It doesn't help that this scene is followed with another scene - a trio between Isabella, Lucio and Dorella - that likewise feels rather academic in its composition and utterly lifeless in the staging. This scene highlights another problem with the opera - although it's evident from quite early on - and that's finding the right kind of voices to sing it. Regardless of the model it is based on, Das Liebesverbot is not bel canto, and the lighter, lyrical and agile voices that are cast here might sound lovely, but they are frequently overwhelmed by the orchestration and challenged by the length of the scenes. The cast would be more at home in the post-Wagnerian works of Strauss or Schreker, but that doesn't quite work here, suggesting that Das Liebesverbot demands the range of Strauss along with traditional Wagnerian stamina. Within those limitations however Manuela Uhl is certainly pushed but copes well as Isabella, but it's only Christopher Maltman's Friedrich who holds up consistently, albeit to lesser challenges.

The colourful production however comes into its own at the absurd comedy of the finale. A little more convincingly than Shakespeare (but not much), Wagner conceives a fancy dress party as a means of tricking Friedrich into sleeping with his own wife instead of Isabella. There are still problems with this idea of the governor who banned pleasure being invited to a carnival (with the Chief of Police Brighella also being lured into making a fool of himself for good measure), not to mention the strange circumstance of his wife being a nun (María Miró an excellent Mariana), but it's a good excuse to set the revelations and resolutions to vibrant carnival music that bring the whole affair to a lively conclusion. In that respect, Kasper Holten does justice to Das Liebesverbot in a production that should satisfy Wagner completists but, much like finally getting the chance to experience Strauss's Feuersnot or Guntram, you'll probably not be in any great hurry to see it again.

The Teatro Real production of Das Liebesverbot is nicely presented on the Blu-ray release. The image is clear and colourful and the sound mixes present the musical performance well in uncompressed high definition mixes. As often seems to be the case, the mixing tends to favour the orchestral performance, particularly in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround track, with the already weak voices further submerged in the centre channel. They come across a little better in the LPCM Stereo, but are still a little low. The only extra feature on the disc is a Cast Gallery, but the circumstances of the composition of the opera and discussion of its content (where more of its inconsistencies and problems are identified) can be found in an essay by Chris Walton in the booklet. A synopsis is also provided. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro Real Madrid