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Das Liebesverbot

Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) is an early opera in two acts by Richard Wagner, with the libretto written by the composer after Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Described as a grosse komische Oper, it was composed in 1834, and Wagner conducted the premiere in 1836 at Magdeburg. 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 a leading tenor broke out backstage before the curtain had even risen. It was never performed again in Wagner's lifetime although it has occasionally been revived, most successfully in 1983 conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Its North American fully-staged premiere took place on July 19, 2008 at the Glimmerglass Opera in a production by Nicholas Muni. The cast was led by Mark Schnaible as Friedrich and Claudia Waite as Isabella; Corrado Rovaris conducted.

A central theme in the work is a longing for unrestrained sexuality; this shows up again in Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, and Tristan und Isolde. In each opera, the self-abandonment to love brings the lovers into mortal combat with the surrounding social order. In Das Liebesverbot, because it is a comedy, the outcome is a happy one: unrestrained sexuality wins as the orgiastic carnival of the entire population goes rioting on after curtain-fall.

Wagner's second opera, and his first to be performed, has many signs of an early work: it is far too long and it is straightforwardly inspired by Beethoven and especially Carl Maria von Weber. It is also referred as the forgotten comedy, in that only two of Wagner's works are comedies, the other being Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Roles

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, March 29, 1836
(Conductor: Richard Wagner)
Friedrich, the King of Germany's Viceroy in Sicily baritone Gräfe
Luzio, a young nobleman tenor Freimüller
Claudio, a young nobleman tenor Schreiber
Antonio, their friend tenor

Angelo, their friend bass Friedrich Krug
Isabella, Claudio's sister soprano Caroline Pollert
Mariana soprano Limbach (or Schindler?)
Brighella, captain of the watch bass Wilhelm Kneisel
Danieli, an innkeeper baritone

Dorella soprano Schindler (or Limbach?)
Pontio Pilato, a bawd tenor

Nuns, judges, guards, townspeople, musicians

Synopsis

Place: Palermo
Time: 16th century

Act 1

The town square

An unnamed king of Sicily leaves his country for a journey to Naples and hands over to the appointed Regent Friedrich full authority to exercise the royal power in order to effect a complete reform in the social habits of his capital, which had provoked the indignation of the Council. The servants of the public authority busily shut up or pull down the houses of popular amusement in a suburb of Palermo, and carry off the inmates as prisoners. The populace oppose this first step, and much scuffling ensues.

Luzio, a young nobleman and juvenile scapegrace, seems inclined to thrust himself forward as leader of the mob, and at once finds an occasion for playing a more active part in the cause of the oppressed people on discovering his friend Claudio being led away to prison. From him he learns that, in pursuance of some musty old law unearthed by Friedrich, he is to suffer the penalty of death for a certain love escapade in which he is involved. His sweetheart, union with whom had been prevented by the enmity of their parents, has borne him a child. Friedrich's puritanical zeal joins cause with the parents' hatred; he fears the worst, and sees his only hope for mercy if his sister Isabella, by her entreaties, can melt the Regent's hard heart. Claudio implores his friend at once to seek out Isabella in the convent of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth, which she has recently entered as novice.

A convent

Isabella is in confidential intercourse with her friend Marianne, also a novice. Marianne reveals to her friend, from whom she has long been parted, the unhappy fate which has brought her to the place. Under vows of eternal fidelity she had been persuaded to a secret liaison with a man of high rank. But finally, when in extreme need she found herself not only forsaken, but threatened by her betrayer, she discovered him to be the mightiest man in the state, none other than the King's Regent himself. Isabella's indignation finds vent in impassioned words, and is only pacified by her determination to forsake a world in which so vile a crime can go unpunished.

When now Luzio brings her tidings of her own brother's fate, Isabella's disgust at her brother's misconduct is turned at once to scorn for the villainy of the hypocritical Regent, who presumes so cruelly to punish the comparatively venial offense of her brother, which, at least, was not stained by treachery. Her violent outburst imprudently reveals her to Luzio in a seductive aspect; smitten with sudden love, he urges her to quit the convent for ever and to accept his hand. She contrives to check his boldness, but resolves at once to avail herself of his escort to the Regent's court of justice.

A courtroom

Several persons are charged by the sbirro captain with offenses against morality. The earnestness of the situation becomes more marked when the gloomy form of Friedrich strides through the inrushing and unruly crowd, commanding silence, and he himself undertakes the hearing of Claudio's case in the sternest manner possible. The implacable judge is already on the point of pronouncing sentence when Isabella enters, and requests, before them all, a private interview with the Regent.

In this interview she behaves with noble moderation towards the dreaded yet despised man before her, and appeals at first only to his mildness and mercy. His interruptions merely serve to stimulate her ardor: she speaks of her brother's offense in melting accents, and implores forgiveness. Friedrich can no longer contain himself, and promises to grant her petition at the price of her own love. Filled with indignation at such villainy, she cries to the people through doors and windows to come in, that she may unmask the hypocrite before the world. By a few significant hints, Friedrich, with frantic energy, succeeds in making Isabella realize the impossibility of her plan. But a few words on her part suffice to transport the Regent himself with ecstasy; for in a whisper she promises to grant his desire, and that on the following night she shall send him such a message as shall ensure his happiness.

And so ends the first act in a whirl of excitement.

Act 2

A prison

Isabella visits her brother in his cell. She reveals Friedrich's shameful proposal to him, and asks if he would wish to save his life at the price of his sister's dishonour. Then follow Claudio's fury and fervent declaration of his readiness to die; whereupon, the unhappy man declines from a state of melancholy to one of weakness. Isabella hesitates in dismay when she sees him fall in this way. Disgusted, she springs to her feet, and declares that to the shame of his death he has further added her most hearty contempt.

After having handed him over again to his gaoler, her mood once more changes swiftly to one of wanton gaiety. True, she resolves to punish the waverer by leaving him for a time in uncertainty as to his fate; but stands firm by her resolve to rid the world of the abominable seducer who dared to dictate laws to his fellow-men.

She tells Marianne that she must take her place at the nocturnal rendezvous, at which Friedrich so treacherously expected to meet her (Isabella), and sends Friedrich an invitation to this meeting. In order to entangle the latter even more deeply in ruin, she stipulates that he must come disguised and masked and fixes the rendezvous in one of those pleasure resorts which he has just suppressed.

To the madcap Luzio, whom she also desires to punish, she relates the story of Friedrich's proposal, and her pretended intention of complying with his desires. This she does in a fashion so incomprehensibly light-hearted that Luzio yields to a fit of desperate rage. He swears that, even if the noble maiden herself can endure such shame, he will himself strive by every means in his power to avert it. And, indeed, he arranges things in such a manner that on the appointed evening all his friends and acquaintances assemble at the end of the Corso, as though for the opening of the prohibited carnival procession.

Outside Friedrich's Palace

At nightfall, Luzio appears sings an extravagant carnival song by which means he seeks to stir the crowd to bloody revolt. When a band of sbirri approaches, under Brighella's leadership, to scatter the gay throng, the mutinous project seems on the point of being accomplished. For the present, however, Luzio prefers to yield and to disperse his followers, as he must first of all win the real leader of their enterprise: for here was the spot which Isabella had mischievously revealed to him as the place of her pretended meeting with the Regent.

For Friedrich, Luzio therefore lies in wait. Recognizing him in an elaborate disguise, he blocks his way and, as Friedrich violently breaks loose, is on the point of following him with shouts and drawn sword when, on a sign from Isabella, who is hidden among some bushes, he is himself stopped and led away. Isabella then advances, rejoicing in the thought of having restored the betrayed Marianne to her faithless spouse. Believing that she holds in her hand the promised pardon for her brother, she is just on the point of abandoning all thought of further vengeance when, breaking the seal, to her intense horror she recognizes by the light of a torch that the paper contains but a still more severe order of execution, which, owing to her desire not to disclose to her brother the fact of his pardon, a mere chance had now delivered into her hand, through the agency of the bribed gaoler.

After a hard fight with the tempestuous passion of love, and recognizing his helplessness against this enemy of his peace, Friedrich has in fact already resolved to face his ruin, even though as a criminal, yet still as a man of honor. An hour on Isabella's breast, and then - his own death by the same law whose implacable severity shall also claim Claudio's life. Isabella, perceiving in this conduct only a further proof of the hypocrite's villainy, breaks out once more into a tempest of agonized despair.

Upon her cry for immediate revolt against the scoundrelly tyrant, the people collect together and form a motley and passionate crowd. Luzio, who also returns, counsels the people with stinging bitterness to pay no heed to the woman's fury; he points out that she is only tricking them - for he still believes in her shameless infidelity. Fresh confusion; increased despair of Isabella; suddenly from the background comes the burlesque cry of Brighella for help, who, himself suffering from the pangs of jealousy, has by mistake arrested the masked Regent, and thus led to the latter's discovery. Friedrich is recognised, and Marianne, trembling on his breast, is also unmasked.

Cries of joy burst forth all round; the needful explanations are quickly given, and Friedrich sullenly demands to be set before the judgment-seat of the returning King. Claudio, released from prison by the jubilant populace, informs him that the sentence of death for crimes of love is not intended for all times; messengers arrive to announce the unexpected arrival in harbor of the King; it is resolved to march in full masked procession to meet the beloved Prince, and joyously to pay him homage, all being convinced that he will heartily rejoice to see how ill the gloomy puritanism of Germany is suited to his hot-blooded Sicily.

Selected recordings

  • Das Liebesverbot, conducted by Sir Edward Downes with April Cantelo (Isabella), Alexander Young (Luzio), Raimund Herincx (Friedrich) etc. BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra, BBC Northern Singers. Live concert recording 23 May 1976, with bonus tracks from a 1971 Sadler's Wells Opera performance of Lohengrin, sung in English and conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite with a cast led by Margaret Curphy as Elsa, Clifford Grant as Heinrich der Vogler, Raimund Herincx as Telramund, and Judith Turner as Ortrud (Ponto POCD1055)
  • Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Bavarian State Opera. Hass, Coburn, Schunk, Prey. 1995 (Orfeo D'or).
  • Robert Heger conducting the Austrian Rundfunk Chor and Orchester, with Heinz Imdahl, Ernst Salzer, Anton Dermota, Karl Equiluz, Willy Friedrich, Hilde Zadek, Christiane Sorrell, Hannelore Steffek, Ernst Salzer, Ludwig Welter, Franz Handlos, Herbert Prikopa. Vienna 1962. (Melodram, 3 LP set 244, 2 CD set 10040).

The overture is regularly found on radio broadcasts and compilation CDs.

References

  • Plot adapted from Wagner's synopsis in his Mein Leben.
  • Bryan Magee (2001),The Tristan Chord. Henry Holt & Co., New York.

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