Friday, January 27, 2012


20 January 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Roland Hartmann, Sonia Freitag 

In case you don’t know, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) was Richard Wagner’s second completed opera. Its premiere on 29 March 1836 in Magdaburg was a fiasco: with only ten days of rehearsal, the singers had had time to learn little more than 50 percent of their parts. The second performance was cancelled after a fight broke out backstage. It was never again mounted during Wagner’s lifetime.

In the past century, Liebesverbot has had a number of notable concert and stage revivals in Europe and America. Several recordings of live performances are currently available.

Dae-Hae Shin (Friedrich), Bettina Kampp (Isabella)

Most recently, the State Theater of Thuringia in Meiningen elected to celebrate the re-opening of its handsomely refurbished opera house, by presenting not only an apparently unabridged Liebesvebot, but also the work that inspired it: Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure a.k.a Maß für Maß. This nifty idea was the brainchild of intendant (General Manager) Ansgar Haag and the director of Maß für Maß Veit Güssow.

“The themes of justice and the double standards of the ruling class remain burning issues to us today as much as they were to Shakespeare and Wagner,” said Haag in a recent German News Agency interview. Haag, in fact, was so taken with the contemporary resonance of these works that he decided to stage Liebesverbot himself, and assign Shakespeare’s problem comedy to Güssow.

Xu Chang (Luzio), Bettina Kampp

Even a cursory reading of Wagner’s libretto reveals his potential as a theater genius, as he pares down and simplifies Shakespeare’s convoluted story, but a pithy tag line for the contents of the plot...? The action takes place in 16th century Sicily during Carnival -- the period preceding Lent. The king’s regent Friedrich issues a decree forbidding Carnival celebrations and all expressions of love on pain of death. Among those arrested and condemned: Claudio, a young nobleman, and his beloved Dorella, who has already borne him a child. Another nobleman and rabble rouser Luzio finds Claudio’s sister Isabella in a convent and entreats her to implore Friedrich for mercy. When she gains audience with Friedrich, he promises to pardon Claudio in exchange for a night in the sack.

Dae-Hae Shin

So what's a nun to do?

Wagner’s adaptation underscores his support of political/sexual freedom, and the work looks forward to his later operas in fits and starts.  Mostly fits.  Every now and then, sprouting amid the rushes of Beethoven-Weber based themes, you hear unmistakable statements of individuality that he later developed in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. I found myself longing for more such passages as the parade of distended marches, ensembles, choruses and declamations began to wear on my ears. ‘Hey, listen to this!’ Wagner seems to be proclaiming with unremitting insistence.  But it all amounts to Wagner before prime time.  And though it's supposedly a comedy, it's no barrel of laughs.

Several factors make Meiningen’s production of Liebesverbot not merely tolerable but engaging. First a superbly drilled cast under the stewardship of chief conductor Philippe Bach and a big-voiced chorus led by Sierd Quaré. Bach’s pacing keeps a sometimes heavy ball bouncing up in the air throughout a rather long evening, while Quaré draws a broad pallate of colors from his chorus.

Theater Meiningen

All the more remarkable, because the ensemble on 20 January had to work around a last-minute indisposition of the tenor singing Claudio. Rodrigo Porras Garula was well enough to mime his part, but a hastily drafted tenor named Christian Brüggemann sang the role from a proscenium box.  Under the circumstances, Brüggeman did a yeoman job.

Among the the mostly yourthful principals, Bettina Kampp is a revelation as Isabella. She has the fire of Rysanek and the honeyed nuance of early Crespin. Her attacks on those clusters of high notes held no terror for her. Xu Chang as Luzio purveyed a characterful ping that could make him a powerful gift to any Infanta’s birthday party. Dae-Hae Shin is in posession of a persuasive dark baritone, but his Friedrich could use more Hunding-esque menace. Camila Ribero-Souza, Roland Hartmann, Sonia Freitag, Maximillian Argmann, Ernst Garstenauer, and Stan Meus completed a surprisingly hi-octane cast.

The Big Band from Martin-Polich-Gymnasium of nearby Mellrichstadt went through their paces in the Meyerbeer-instigated procession scene in the second half and made up for some absences in its ranks with discipline and energy.

Ansgar Haag’s staging animates Wagner’s call for spectacle, by effectively exploiting a newly installed concentric revolving stage, complete with a lift that can make Helge Ullman’s attractive sets appear and disappear, even as the turntable is spinning. (Ullmann also designed the sets for Maß für Maß.)

Theater Meiningen's box office beadle.

What is astonishing about this Liebesverbot is that such a polished and integrated production is taking place in a city that has little more than 20-thousand inhabitants. You would certainly expect elevated quality in a festival presentation, even if it’s happening in the middle of nowhere. But Meiningen, which is situated in the middle of Germany's midlands, is producing this rarely performed work at regular prices ($9-$43) as part of its seasonal subscription program of musical theater and plays.

The interior of the opera house, dating from 1909,  has been refurbished, closely following the designs of  architect Karl Behlert. On the stage (above) a concave, two-level colonnade rests on the outer ring of a concentric turntable, which also can elevate and lower sets while revolving. 

Not all that surprising, if you're aware that the standards of this opera house have been stamped by the likes of Richard Strauss, Hans von Bülow, the American-born Wilhelm Berger and Max Reger, all of whom served as music directors here. In the face of ever-dwindling state-subsidies, Theater Meiningen continues to draw loyal pan-demographic support from its patrons. On my way to the train station on the morning after the performance I attended, my taxi driver informed me he has two subscriptions and has many friends who frequent the theater here at least a couple times each season.

Hotel Schlundhaus

I’m convinced that Theater Meiningen continues to thrive in part because the city was spared crippling war damage. Also, there are no skyscrapers, and new construction is integrated into existing surroundings.

During my short stay, I learned that the recipe for Thuringer Dumpling, a regional delicacy, is said to have originated at the Schlundhaus Hotel, where I stayed.  An order of these delectable diet busters is alone worth a four hour-plus trip from the Rhineland. As you walk your meal off through the narrow bending streets that open out into spacious squares, where inhabitants still do their marketing, you grasp a sense of cultural continuity now lost in most urban environments.

Meiningen's market square

I don’t know what plans are afoot to keep Meiningen’s cultural inventiveness going, but all intendants in Germany must be aware that 2012 marks the centenary of the original version of Ariadne auf Naxos, which Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstahl conceived as a companion piece to the latter’s translation of Moliere’s Le Bougeois Gentilhomme. Angsar Haag certainly has the forces at his disposal to present both works on separate days early next season.  It would be a coup indeed if he could pull it off.

Production Photographs: Foto-ed Meiningen
Other photographs: Sam H. Shirakawa

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