August 15, 2013


Wagner: Das Liebesverbot. Michael Nagy, Peter Bronder, Charles Reid, Simon Bode, Franz Mayer, Christiane Libor, Anna Gabler, Thorsten Grümbel, Kihwan Sim, Anna Ryberg, Julian Prégardien; Chor des Oper Frankfurt and Frankfurt Opern-und Museumorchester conducted by Sebastian Weigle. Oehms. $39.99 (3 CDs).

Wagner: Die Walküre. Tomasz Konieczny, Iris Vermillion, Robert Dean Smith, Melanie Diener, Timo Riihonen, Petra Lang; Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $59.99 (4 SACDs).

     At first glance or first hearing, there is a world of difference between Wagner’s second opera, Das Liebesverbot, and his second Ring opera, Die Walküre. The differences are particularly apparent in performances as fine as these two – and yet because the performances are so good, they show that the two operas ultimately occupy worlds that are not so different after all. Both Das Liebesverbot (first performed a single time, disastrously, in 1836, and never again in the composer’s lifetime) and Die Walküre (first heard in 1870 and first staged as part of the Ring cycle in 1876) are ultimately about the inevitable conflict between intense erotic love and the strictures of society – with the early opera, a comedy, eventually resolving happily, while the later one ends with a fateful decision by Wotan that will soon enough doom him and all the gods. Interestingly – and in faithfulness to Shakespeare, whose Measure for Measure provided Wagner with the story that he turned into the libretto of Das Liebesverbot – the characters in the earlier opera are so stiff and mercurial that they barely seem human, while those in the later one, including the gods, are all too human in their desires and manifest foibles.

     Das Liebesverbot fairly closely follows the events although not the geographical setting of Shakespeare’s play, whose primary protagonists in Wagner’s opera are the puritanical and hypocritical regent of Sicily, Friedrich, and the insensitive and mercurial Isabella – two characters as difficult to empathize with in Wagner as in Shakespeare, and in many ways two sides of the same unpleasant coin. As in his first opera, Die Feen, Wagner in Das Liebesverbot channels and reinterprets the work of others – Marschner in the earlier work and Rossini in this one. The sheer ebullience of the model never quite emerges, even though Wagner refocuses the work’s ending to emphasize enjoyment and pleasure for all rather than justice triumphant, as in Shakespeare. Still, there are some very upbeat elements here, including a fine carnival song and the final crowd scene, and they are well juxtaposed with a more-serious overarching structure that resembles nothing less than Fidelio, with the same tyrant-prisoner-woman layout as in Beethoven’s opera and the same appearance at the very end of a more-benevolent ruler. And since Fidelio is in its form a French rescue opera, it is not surprising to find that Das Liebesverbot sports French influences as well. More interestingly, though, it also shows very early signs of forms that Wagner would later develop musically: there are no extensive leitmotifs here, but there is already the stirring of thematic identifications important to the plot and used in both anticipatory and reminiscent passages – most notably a theme representing the Liebesverbot (“ban on love”) itself. As in Die Feen, Wagner here calls for a large cast of characters and rather more soloists than it is possible to keep track of, but the Frankfurt performers handle their roles quite well: the recording is drawn from two concert performances in May 2012, and it is a very fine one both dramatically and acoustically (it was made at the Alte Oper Frankfurt, a top-notch venue). Conductor Sebastian Weigle deserves much credit for not looking down upon this as “merely” an early work of little consequence (which is how Wagner himself came to regard it): Weigle gives it plenty of weight and attention without striving to turn it into a grander or more-effective opera than it is, and without being afraid to let the seams show, as they do a number of times. English speakers will, however, be frustrated to discover that the complete libretto is given in the booklet – but only in German. Das Liebesverbot is actually an interesting and impressive work on its own merits, and would be worth an occasional hearing even if it were not by Wagner. Clearly the fact that it is by Wagner is the reason for the attention it currently receives at the bicentennial of the composer’s birth – and truthfully, it is about time that Wagner’s three operas from before Der fliegende Holländer got some attention, with the grandest and most complex of them, Rienzi, most in need of revival and most demanding of singers and staging alike. For a full understanding of Wagner and a full appreciation of his work, seeing how he handled the themes and approaches of Marschner, Rossini and (in Rienzi) Meyerbeer is invaluable. The new recording of Das Liebesverbot is therefore an important accomplishment partly because this is interesting, well-made music that is very rarely heard – and also because it shows aspects of Wagner’s style and thought (the latter in the libretto) that have far too infrequently been available to modern opera lovers.

     Die Walküre, on the other hand, is so popular that it is often performed as a standalone opera, which means that a great deal of it makes little musical or dramatic sense – but it does not seem to matter amid the excellence of the music and intense drama of the story. This is the first appearance in the Ring cycle of humans, since Das Rheingold includes only immortals, and the immediately recognizable themes of love and hate, passion and adultery, acceptance and disobedience, make a heady brew that sweeps the music drama forward from start to finish with impetuosity, lyric beauty and tremendous intensity. This new Marek Janowski reading is the eighth in the superb set of 10 PentaTone recordings of Wagner’s mature operas – only Siegfried and Götterdammerung remain to be released – and, like the Frankfurt Das Liebesverbot, this Berlin Die Walküre is a live recording of a concert performance (from November 2012). It continues the extremely high quality level of all the Janowski Wagner recordings for PentaTone – as well as the high quality of the company’s SACD sound, which is as impressive for its silences and extremely quiet passages as for its full, booming climaxes, and the excellence of the extensive booklet notes and German-English libretto. Robert Dean Smith and Melanie Diener make a strong, passionate mortal pair – very well-matched as singers – in the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the contrast with the godly duo of Tomasz Konieczny as Wotan and Iris Vermillion as Fricka is particularly pronounced here, with the immortals being distinctly pettier and more unpleasantly bound to their own strictures than are the freethinking, although doomed, brother-and-sister lovers. Timo Riihonen offers a strong, stolid reading in the thankless role of Hunding, who stands for conventionality just as Fricka does and elicits just as little respect or liking – he cannot really be made a sympathetic character, but at least Riihonen gives him a certain wounded nobility. And then there is Petra Lang as Brünnhilde, caught between mortals and immortals and beholden to both, doomed by her own headstrong nature and the curse of the ring to an end-of-opera fate that eventually drags all the gods down as well – all for love. The whole Ring cycle is about love and the consequences of denying, misusing or abandoning it, and in Die Walküre the theme coalesces into the realm of the highly personal both at the gods’ level and at that of mortals. Janowski understands this dynamic perfectly and brings it to the fore repeatedly, using the somewhat fast tempos that he generally favors to make the music even more propulsive and intense than usual. The Ride of the Valkyries, arguably Wagner’s single most famous piece, is here not only thrilling in itself but also perfectly integrated into the extreme drama of the story at the point that it occurs. Brünnhilde’s eight sisters all sing their minor roles strongly, too, which helps a great deal; they are sopranos Anja Fidelia Ulrich, Fionnuala McCarthy and Carola Höhn; mezzo-sopranos Heike Wessels, Wilke te Brummelstroete and Renate Spingler; and contraltos Kismara Pessatti and Nicole Piccolomini. As in all these PentaTone recordings, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin plays with assurance, intensity and absolute beauty of tone, and Janowski is so thoroughly in control of the proceedings that there is scarcely a moment that flags from start to finish. The contrast between this extremely well-known opera and the little-known Das Liebesverbot is a very strong one, but even more interesting than the differences – which are scarcely surprising after more than three decades of the composer’s life – are the similarities of theme and the intensity with which Wagner proclaims the importance of both love and passion, though the rule of law collapse into unremitting celebration in the earlier opera and the world itself go down in flames in the later one.

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