Luzio (tenor Ryan MacPherson), a young
Brando-like tough-tender dude in a black leather jacket, leads us into
the scene and narrates part of the action. While an unnamed king of
Palermo is away, his German regent Friedrich (baritone Mark Schnaible)
wants to close down the town. Not only is Carnival banned, but
lovemaking outside marriage is punishable by death. This makes an
immediate problem for young nobleman Claudio (tenor Richard Cox), who
has impregnated his girlfriend Julia (soprano Juliet Petrus), who’s
hiding out in a convent. There she takes up with Claudio’s pious sister
Isabella (soprano Claudia Waite), who is persuaded that she can melt
the Puritan Friedrich’s heart. Resolved, Isabella gets up off her knees
and puts on lipstick and sunglasses, knowing she has to get to work.
Early in the action the promise of
comedy arises from a self-important deputy to Friedrich, Brighella
(basso Kevin Glavin). Wagner, who read Shakespeare thoroughly, probably
expanded Brighella from the character Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. In
a subplot undermining Friedrich’s iron rule, Brighella falls to the
lures of Dorella (soprano Lauren Skuce), who forces him into drag to
try to make time with her. In Wagner’s libretto, this is not just comic
relief but foreshadowing that the plot will be taking a lighter turn.
Out of the convent, Isabella turns into
a zaftig femme fatale whose pursuit of Friedrich takes abrupt turns,
one of them uncovering an abandoned wife, Mariana (soprano Holli
Harrison). Like the repressive hypocrites in Greek drama, Friedrich
turns out to crave what he seeks to destroy. He makes a pass at
Isabella, and he is exposed. Meanwhile, much is made of dour
Friedrich’s being a German, and in the end the fun-loving Sicilians
have triumphed over gloom and the stage explodes with energy.
A cynic might observe that Das Liebesverbot is
Wagner for people who don’t really like Wagner, but his champions have
been at work to claim it as his own. Obviously influenced by the
Italianate bel canto generation before him, as well as Carl
Maria von Weber, Wagner here is developing his own distinctive voice,
such as the introduction of the leitmotiv and the rapid movement
between sequences. The theme of unrestrained sexuality shows up again
in Tannhäuser, Die Walkure and Tristan und Isolde.
Also Wagnerian, the demanding music
calls for big voices. Even as he is the villain, Friedrich’s second-act
aria, “So spat und noch kein Brief von Isabella?,” allows him tragic
dimension. Soprano Claudia Waite claims the largest share of the
audience’s heart with the coruscating brilliance of such arias as “So
sei’s! Für seinen feigen Wankelmut” at the beginning of the second act.
Grease is the word: Claudia Waite and Ryan MacPherson in Das Liebesverbot.