08 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner—DAS LIEBESVERBOT (M. Nagy, P. Bronder, C. Libor, A. Gabler, J. Prégardien; Oehms Classics OC 942)

Richard Wagner: DAS LIEBESVERBOT (Oehms Classics OC 942)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Das Liebesverbot—M. Nagy (Friedrich), P. Bronder (Luzio), C. Reid (Claudio), S. Bode (Antonio), F. Mayer (Angelo), C. Libor (Isabella), A. Gabler (Mariana), T. Grümbel (Brighella), K. Sim (Danieli), A. Ryberg (Dorella), J. Prégardien (Pontio Pilato); Chor der Oper Frankfurt; Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester; Sebastian Weigle [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at the Alte Oper Frankfurt, 2 and 4 May 2012; Oehms Classics OC 942; 3CD, 148:30]

Even in this celebratory year, the fact that Richard Wagner composed operas before Der Fliegende Holländer has largely been overlooked.  With two intriguing Ring Cycles—a Cycle from Hamburg, conducted by Simone Young, and the engaging Frankfurt Ring led by Sebastian Weigle—already in their catalogue, the inquisitive minds who manage Oehms Classics have looked beyond the established Wagner canon to the works of the composer’s youth.  Their standard-setting recording of Die Feen, Wagner’s first opera (composed in 1833, when the composer was twenty years old, but not performed until 1888), is already available, and joining it now, in honor of the Wagner Bicentennial, is this new recording of Das Liebesverbot, the 1834 opera that was Wagner’s only effort in a comic vein until Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, premiered nearly three decades after the first performance of Das Liebesverbot in Magdeburg in 1836.  [A new recording of Rienzi, also taken from concert performances, will complete the series in 2014.]  As was his habit, Wagner composed his own libretto for Das Liebesverbot, adapting its plot from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.  Shakespeare’s play is a troublesome creation, its classification as a comedy masking a number of plot elements that are anything but funny.  Seemingly, some of the play’s black humor was lost on Wagner, who transferred the action from Vienna to Palermo and introduced a political element which is mostly absent in Shakespeare.  Musically, Das Liebesverbot belongs more to the world of Auber and Spontini than to that of Wagner’s later operas, though there are occasional passages that would not be out of place in Lohengrin or Tannhäuser.  Dramatically, however, Das Liebesverbot explores a theme that would remain central to Wagner’s work throughout his career: the juxtaposition of sexuality with very specific systems of morals.  Perhaps crucial to understanding Wagner’s development as an artist is the observation of the shift that occurred in his exploration of this conceit between Das Liebesverbot and his later masterpieces Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, the Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal.  Whereas the concept of ‘free love’ and the characters who adhere to it—Venus, Tristan and Isolde, Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried and Brünnhilde, Kundry—are victimized by the societies they inhabit, the orgiastic lovers in Das Liebesverbot triumph over the constraints of their social order.  Is this merely a manifestation of a young composer’s enthusiasm for the hormonal excesses of youth or a critical clue to unlocking the mysteries of a famously enigmatic composer’s hypersensitive psyche?

Sebastian Weigle, the Chor der Oper Frankfurt, and the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester have proved stylish interpreters of a wide array of music, ranging from Italian verismo in Leoni’s L’Oracolo to contemporary German opera in Aribert Reimann’s Lear and Medea.  Some of their most impressive work has been in Wagner, however, and their Ring is notable for the clarity of instrumental textures and the consistent involvement of Maestro Weigle’s conducting, sustained across the span of all four operas.  Das Liebesverbot, though musically very different from the Ring operas, benefits from the same unity of vision displayed in Maestro Weigle’s Ring on Oehms Classics, his conducting of the earlier opera molded by an individual but never idiosyncratic approach to the score.  The success of Maestro Weigle’s approach is revealed by the absence of tempi that seem in any way inappropriate for the music: every speed seems precisely right and selected with attentiveness to the support needed by the singers.  This correctness of pacing is of tremendous importance in an opera like Das Liebesverbot, in which, despite the fact that Wagner had not yet fully nurtured his gifts for writing scores that test audiences’ stamina, the slightly self-conscious efforts at revealing musical sophistication can be too much of a good thing.  Maestro Weigle’s Frankfurt choristers and orchestral instrumentalists respond to his leadership with complete conviction, producing singing and playing of a quality for which one longs in many performances of Wagner’s mature operas.  Above all, singers, instrumentalists, and conductor convey a sense of fun that makes this performance, though recorded during concert performances, fizz with the energy and high spirits of the stage.

Musically and dramatically, Das Liebesverbot shares with its more illustrious comedic sibling Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the trait of having important rôles and more important rôles: no character is insignificant.  Central to the plot (and the comedy) are the machinations of the tavern proprietor Danieli and his employees Dorella, a waitress, and Pontio Pilato, the tavern manager.  South Korean bass-baritone Kihwan Sim sings Danieli’s lines with rounded, ringing tone.  Swedish soprano Anna Ryberg is delightful as Dorella, a worthy ancestor to Verdi’s Mistress Quickly, her tone bright and forward without being shrill and her dramatic instincts sure throughout the performance.  Pontio Pilato, an invention of Wagner’s libretto, is portrayed with splendid animation and subtlety by tenor Julian Prégardien, whose inheritance of the refined interpretive skills displayed by his father, the renowned Christoph Prégardien, uniquely qualifies him for his rôle.  Mr. Prégardien also inherited something of his father’s silvery timbre, and he has a splendid time with Pontio Pilato’s self-serving transformation from imprisoned tavern-keeper to prison guard.

Friedrich, the [obviously Teutonic] Governor of Sicily, is commandingly sung by baritone Michael Nagy, whose Wagnerian credentials include acclaimed performances of Wolfram in Tannhäuser and Gunther in Götterdämmerung.  Friedrich is a less demanding assignment than either of those parts, but it is not an insubstantial rôle.  Mr. Nagy’s voice is a more naturally attractive, bel canto instrument than many baritones heard in the music of Wagner, but this contributes meaningfully to his portrayal of a meddling but ultimately noble man.  He sings his ‘Szene und Aria’ in Act Two, ‘So spät und noch kein Brief von Isabella,’ with commendable energy and firm tone.  Chief constable Brighella, a figure who would feel perfectly at home in any of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s better operettas, is sung with panache by bass Thorsten Grümbel, whose sharply-characterized performance gives Brighella all the zany charm of a Keystone Cop.

Except for Angelo, all of the opera’s noblemen and their friends are tenors.  Angelo, the lone baritone in the heady-toned quartet of young gentlemen of leisure, is capably sung by Oper Frankfurt Kammersänger Franz Mayer.  Young tenor Simon Bode brings a lovely timbre to Antonio’s music, his singing shaped by an obvious affection for the music.  Charles Reid, whose performances at the Metropolitan Opera have found him sharing the stage with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Anna Netrebko, and Plácido Domingo, sings Claudio with diction and tone of equal clarity, voicing his lines with freshness that tires only at the top of his range.  The playboy Luzio is convincing portrayed by English-born tenor Peter Bronder, who copes well with Wagner’s strenuous demands in his duet with Isabella in Act One and the trio with Isabella and Dorella in Act Two.  Mr. Bronder’s voice loses focus in the extreme upper register, but he summons a deftly-placed top note to cap the duet with Isabella, ‘Es ist ein Mann.’  The tone can occasionally sound hollow, perhaps an effect of microphone arrangement, and while more delicate shading of tone would be welcome in several of Luzio’s scenes Mr. Bronder offers a responsive, ingratiating performance.

In their jaunts through Das Liebesverbot, both Isabella and Mariana encounter hurdles that are atypical of Wagner heroines: stretches of Italianate cantilena, gratuitous top notes, and—perish the thought!—passages of coloratura.  Mariana, the novice nun whose intended—and, not surprisingly, ultimately abandoned—vocation does not prevent her from wholeheartedly taking part in intrigue, is sung with the voice of an angel and the concentration of a prize fighter by soprano Anna Gabler.  Ms. Gabler possesses the gift of making every word that she sings sound completely spontaneous, and the effectiveness of her performance is considerably enhanced by the fact that it sounds as though every note is a new invention.  Ms. Gabler’s voice shines in every ensemble in which she sings, portraying Mariana as a winsome lass who cherishes her place at the center of the action.  Isabella, presumably the more ‘mature’ of the leading ladies, does not shrink from her share of conspiratorial revelries.  Sung with the fire and vocal acumen expected in Donizetti or Verdi rôles, the Isabella of soprano Christiane Libor is a fascinating creation, at once passionate and poised.  Ms. Libor is amassing accolades in some of the most challenging soprano parts in the German repertory, including Beethoven’s Leonore, Weber’s Agathe, and Strauss’s Feldmarschallin, and her singing in this performance raises hopes that she will not neglect Italian repertory, as well.  Her command of bravura music is impressive, but it should not be forgotten that Beethoven’s Leonore has in ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin’ a vocal tour de force that demands coloratura agility and, in ‘Komm, Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern,’ unbroken cantilena.  Brünnhilde, too, has her trills, after all.  Though she has stirring duets with both Luzio and Claudio, Wagner did not give Isabella a concerted number in which to make her mark, but this is of little consequence to a singer as gifted as Ms. Libor: singing boldly but never without feminine charm, she offers as compelling a performance of a Wagner heroine—albeit one quite different from the better-known ones—as any ever recorded.

Das Liebesverbot was a spectacular failure at its first performance, owing more to opera house politics than to the quality of the young Wagner’s score, but such a legacy—combined with the composer’s later disavowal of the score—ensured that the opera was shelved and never again staged during Wagner’s lifetime.  Only in this Bicentennial year has the opera been performed at Bayreuth, defying Wagner’s ban on performances of his early works at his self-consecrated musical temple.  Its famously-finicky creator’s vote of no confidence notwithstanding, Das Liebesverbot is an enjoyable opera that reveals much about Wagner’s development as a composer and dramatist.  Wagner was right to grant his later operas pride of place in his affections, but his dismissal of Das Liebesverbot was a disservice.  This wonderful recording from Oehms Classics rectifies the injustice suffered by Das Liebesverbot during the past 180 years.  Perhaps this injustice is unintentionally perpetuated by stating that the strong work from Maestro Weigle and his cast of soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists in this performance of Das Liebesverbot inspires the wish that Wagner’s mature operas consistently enjoyed recordings of similar quality.

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