Comic Opera in two acts. Running Time: 2 hours 58 minutes.
Read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure if you want the plot, although the setting has been shifted to Palermo, Sicily. The additional 53 minutes of material on the video are highlights of a performance of Lohengrin, which I will not be including here. There are philosophical ideas here: Wagner is refuting and making fun of Hegel of all people, but nothing remotely like the dreaded Wahn Molotov, I mean monologue.
Incidentally there are 11 musical numbers if anyone was asking, although except for scene changes you don’t really notice the transitions very much. This is apparently the longest recording, although the others seem to have clipped the dialogue (mostly unnecessary) and the repetitions.
Oh, and a specially thank you to Nick for suggesting this and for pushing me to write this review.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1 (101.5 minutes, yes it is THAT long).
0: The overture *** starts off for the first two minutes with two distinctive mottos, the first is this Offenbach-ish carnival tune and the second is the title theme (a Puritanical sounding brooding motif). This is followed by yet another crazy, dizzying motif. Then six and a half minutes in we get yet another crazy but slightly regal Carnaval tune. Oddly enough, and even though it is against majority opinion, I am going to call this as being very Wagnerian and really not all that Italian bel canto. Seriously, this thing has at least three leitmotifs and the brass section is as maturely developed as in Die Meistersinger. It sounds very much like the Wagner we all know and hate. I give it three stars because I wish everything Wagner wrote was like this!
Scene 1: A square in Palermo because Sicilians have so much more sex than the rest of us .
8: The act opens with an explosion that sounds like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes doing their stuff **. The Chief Constable, one Brighella because why not, announces the ban on love. It tots throws water on everyones mood. The announcement is made in dialogue, although the Puritanical proto-leitmotif pops in at this moment. (Incidentally, the wicked ruler is a viceroy named Friedrich who is a German, BOO!!!!).
13, 16, 18: The chorus laughs off the ban but they aren’t laughing long * (Forman calls this the “HA HA Chorus”). What follows is an engaging recitative * in which the main storyline is developed. Claudio is being led away to prison for being the town fornicator and his friend Luzio decides to get Claudio’s sister, a convent novice named Isabella, to come out and say a good word for him. This all does sound Italian including the funny bel canto arietta con coro * for Claudio. There are slight traces of the Act 3 finale of Rienzi here (you will notice that most of Wagner’s finales in the first three operas get reworked in various ways from Die Feen to Rienzi).
Scene 2: The convent.
24, 30: The scene somewhat notoriously beings with the Dresden Amen *. The prelude is serene and a little like the ocean music at the start of act 3 of Meyerbeer’s Vasco as some nuns sings in unison,otherwise the scene is at first made up of a long duet between the two main female characters (there are three and the third, Dorella, was introduced in the previous scene), Isabella and her long-time-no-see/now we are both novices BBF Jill, no her name is Marianne. Here Wagner tries to out bel canto Rossini and Bellini for some reason. It is pretty but also a little confusing to say the least. More serene preluding, more soprano duetting. Marianne is probably the linch-pin sleeper character of the entire plot, as she was married to and abandoned to some very powerful German guy and has decided that without him she doesn’t want sex any more (I think you know who the German is and . The duet is long and fragmentary although Wagner tries his hardest to make up like his suspended soprano high notes *.
39: Someone comes to the convent, who could it be? It is a man! It is Luzio, bringing tidings to Isabella regarding her brother. After some very standard introductions in very basic German “Ich bin Luzio, Claudios freud. Wo ist dienes schwester Isabella?” and “Sie ist ihr.” We get a duet between Luzio and Isabella (although the latter is rather furious at the news he brings, somehow eventually these two end up making it). It takes a while but eventually the duet gets rather fired up, a little *, as we realize that these two are a little wee bit attracted to each other (love theme from the overture pops up in the orchestra). They finish well.
Scene 3: A courtroom.
45: This is a very long scene apparently and we finally meet Friedrich after a return of the Puritanical sex-ban theme and an oddly Italianate aria * from Brighella and his judgement on Ponzio Pilato (get it?) the tenor servant of the innkeeper Danieli.
52, 57: Watch out for something that resembles the first half of the Sleep motif from Walkure in very primitive form * during the Dorella-Brighella duet, a waltzing and weirdly German-sounding number that most people construe for some reason as being Italianate. In the end, Dorella successes in seducing the officer, the male chorus pops in outside and we get lots of bells and a jaunty march tune **. We get more bits that will end up in Rienzi.
64, 68: Friedrich holds count, is given a petition to hold a carnival in the town, and tares it up (why other than to be mean? carnivals don’t have to be orgies, they just usually turn into them). There is a duet with Claudio ** before Isabella arrives, asking for a private word. Court is cleared so Isabella can speak alone with Friedrich. Just watch out for the whole ten minute scene *. Sir Denis Forman apparently loved it though because he gave a chorus here two stars.
72, 76: Isabella’s aria for mercy is okay but not amazing *. It develops and become significantly improved later on as the love theme from the overture comes back **. The dreadful Friedrich tells her that she can have anything she wants (Claudio freed, half the island, his head on a silver platter) if she will let him deflower her. NOTHING DOING YOU CREEP! screams Isabella, calling back all the peeps. “No one will believe you” says Friedrich (sexist pig! although Isabella quickly believes him in spite of initial support from the chorus, Dorella, and Brighella.
87: The beginning of the first act finale **, is finally Italianate. She gets the bright idea of substituting Marianne for sex with Friedrich (that wouldn’t even be immoral by anyone’s standards then because Marianne is actually Friedrich’s wife!). So Isabella agrees to Friedrich’s sex appointment in a rather jovial duettino con coro and then the whole thing crescendos
96: More finale *** this time very obviously a second draft of the act 3 finale of Rienzi. The repeated flourishes are amazing even if they get done a little too much (Wagner sure knew how to kill a good musical theme when he had one didn’t he?).
ACT 2 (77 minutes)
Scene 1: Claudio’s prison cell.
5: After a sobering two minute prelude (very different from the other music, rather brooding actually). We get some recitative from Claudio and then Isabella shows up and they go through “the plan” in an okay duet * which is something closer to a typical number ending in an Italian opera. At first he doesn’t want her to sell herself to save him, but, then, he changes his mind and she decides not to tell him that it will be Marianne sleeping with dreadful Friedrich, also she is letting him stay in prison because he is a dirty sex pervert. He goes.
17, 19: This march theme * develops which will return in Tannhauser apparently. Dorella comes on and gets her orders from Isabella (three letters, one for Friedrich confirming the sexy time, one to Marianne telling her when to be ready for sexy time, and another for Brighella so he intercepts Claudio’s reprieve from prison so he isn’t released for a few more days after all the craziness subsides) the latter finds out that Luzio is just as much of a sex pervert as her brother (this occurs in a weird passage of recitative, or rather totally unaccompanied singing, but too much patter to be a cappella in the normal sense. Luzio comes on and a lilting (or leering) trio develops ** with this really weird “going up” scaling in I think Isabella’s vocal line. We then get more dialogue for some reason. I guess this makes this the only instance of Wagner writing something resembling a Singspiel.
Scene 2: A room in Friedrich’s palace.
32, 37: Friedrich feels bad about wanting to have sex with Isabella *. He gets Isabella’s letter and becomes horny again *. This is followed by yet another dialogue, this time between Brighella and Dorella who plan their own naughty rendezvous.
Scene 3: The illegal carnival on the Corso Sicilianna.
43, 46: A carnival prelude and chorus *, standard but excited. There is then a dance to the same music as the start of the overture, which frames a high tenor song from Luzio **.
54: A duet ** for Isabella and Marianne (finally making an appearance again?).
65: The finale consists of about 23 minutes of comparatively low temperature work *. The first broken encounter is between Luzio and Dorella (forced upon Lucio) but interrupted by Isabella and Brighella, ending with Luzio declaring his love for Isabella who has a furious patch of arioso * when she discovers from Brighella’s intercepted “reprieve” that Friedrich technically has double-crossed her and ordered Claudio’s execution. Marianne (masked) has already gone off with Friedrich for sexy time so Isabella (who has also engaged in a double-cross of sorts) has him publicly exposed as a hypocrite in order to get Claudio freed. Isabella decides to marry Luzio, Dorella shacks up with Brighella (not a shocker) and Friedrich and Marianne…well Wagner for some reason skips over that.
72: Suddenly, the king returns and we have five and a half minutes of dancing * and celebration before the curtain falls.
Das Liebesverbot is the one time Wagner was completely harmless and humane. No characters who are racist symbols (nor even symbols), no pretensions of grandeur or holiness, the story is about sex not esoteric “love” (except maybe fraternal love), and the only philosophical argument is being refuted (hurrah!). This is just a happy little sex comedy in the style of Rossini or Donizetti, and it is a great shame it doesn’t see the light of day more often when dreck like Tristan und Isolde is out there infecting humanity like the Ebola virus. If the world were a better place, this would be Wagner’s most popular and most performed opera, period. This isn’t a great opera, but it is a good opera, and what is more it is an enjoyable opera; also ironically probably the least Wagnerian thing Wagner ever wrote, although there are some Germanic traces in it (the brass). There are many Italianate features (the vocal lines for instance are far closer to bel canto coloratura than Wagner would ever write ever again). Perhaps this can be called Wagner’s most cosmopolitan work: based on an English play, in German, but with a very Italianate musical and dramatic setting with traces of French opera comique for good measure. The story is simple, and unlike Meistersinger actually funny with all the seduction attempts and sexy jokes, while the character of Isabella lends the entire situation an air of dignity it otherwise wouldn’t have. It is very slow, but this is also the longest recording (56 minutes longer than the shortest!) and much of this seems to be about inclusion of long dialogue bits and frankly Sir Edward Downes’ tendency to conduct way too slowly. There is one plot hole (what happens to Marianne?). I would have liked more of this from the W-man. Although not an alpha, a B+.