Sunday, May 19, 2019

Richard Wagner, Das liebesverbot (1836)

This is Wagner's second completed opera. It was a failure at the time, and disavowed by the composer; the account on wikipedia of that premiere is pretty funny:

Poorly attended and with a lead singer who forgot the words and had to improvise, it was a resounding flop and its second performance had to be cancelled after a fist-fight between the prima donna's husband and the lead tenor broke out backstage before the curtain had even risen; only three people were in the audience. It was never performed again in Wagner's lifetime.

Fun! It's certainly not commonly performed nowadays, and I certainly wouldn't have gone out of my way to see it, but I found a production on youtube, so what the hell? It's his only comedy other than Meistersinger, so...bam.

That title translates as "the ban on love," and if nothing else, GOOD GOD is that ever thematically in keeping with Wagner's later career. If nothing else, that is a cool thing about it. It's based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a play which I've never seen nor read, and I really ought to just take a month or so and read all of Shakespeare straight through. Seems like a cultural imperative. But anyway, I can tell you that what's happened is that The King has left the country and put a governor named Friedrich in charge. Friedrich is strait-laced and puritanical, so he's having all the fun things shut down: bars and brothels and general places of amusement. Some guy named Claudio is being sent to jail thence to be executed for having had a love affair, which is now illegal. So he gets his friend Luzio to go find his sister Isabella in a convent to get her to plead his behalf. It turns out Friedrich is a big fat hypocrite, having seduced and abandoned another nun, Marianne. Be that as it may, Isabella goes to agitate on behalf of her brother, but he wants to make a Scarpia-type deal for his release (and seriously, I'd be surprised if Puccini was actually familiar with this non-famous opera, but the similarities are remarkable). So she gets Marianne out of the convent and tricks him into engaging in the merriment that he'd condemned, and there is rejoicing, the end.

I thought this was pretty good, actually. It's no Meistersinger, but it's such a different sort of thing that the comparison may lack meaning. Is it the case that Wagner's insistence on the intensity of all this merriment feels a bit forced? Sure. I think he didn't have a sufficiently light touch to make this work perfectly on its own terms, but there's still some fun stuff to be seen, and the music? Well, it certainly feels like proto-Wagner to me. Not bad.

This is a 2016 Teatro Real performance, in a very modernized production, with a lot of the action in a glitzy red-light district and with cell phones and everything. Very extravagant costumes. Also, a funny thing during the overture where there's a big portrait of Wagner that's been crudely animated to make the neck and mouth move to the music. The whole thing works pretty well for the most part (one strange distraction, though: when the "king" appears at the end, it's clearly meant to be Angela Merkel, which...wha?), although a lot of the performances are a bit generic. The singing's fine, but I feel that a lot of the actors weren't really getting into their characters, making this less than it could have been (not that I think they're particularly vividly written anyway). The huge, obvious standout here is a not-very-recognizable Christopher Maltman as Friedrich, and seriously, he is a wonder (as well as the only name I know in the cast). I would go so far as to say that, adjusting for role quality, this is easily his best performance I've ever seen. His mannerisms, body language, facial contortions (sometimes reminding me of Rick from The Young Ones)--it all comes together to bring to life what wouldn't inherently be a super-interesting character. Manuela Uhl as Isabella is also pretty good, as is Ante Jerkunica the constable Brighella, but honestly, it's really worth seeing for Maltman alone.

I have to say one thing about the subtitles just because it's SUCH a bizarre quirk: every time the word "I'll" appears, the rest of the line is cut off. There must be a reason for this, but I can't imagine what it could be.


Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

(and seriously, I'd be surprised if Puccini was actually familiar with this non-famous opera, but the similarities are remarkable)

…Could he not simply have been familiar with the Shakespeare play that inspired this? (Or with whatever source the Bard himself may have used, of course.)

12:33 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

Yeah, that should have occurred to me.

1:43 AM  

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