At Glimmerglass, the alarm is on love

The first and only time composer Richard Wagner saw his opera Das Liebesverbot performed, things did not go well. The orchestra stumbled. The singers ad-libbed. The leading tenor sparked an affair with the leading lady, whose husband eventually stepped in with a left hook. Bloodshed ensued. When it was all over the composer complained in an 1836 letter, “They are all shit-heads [Scheisskerle] here!”

There’s no doubt he’d be far more satisfied with the first full-length production in North America at Glimmerglass, the bucolic summer opera house near Cooperstown, New York. Glimmerglass presents an edgy and highly sexualized production of Wagner’s second opera this season, which ends August 24th. This Das Liebesverbot brims with zest, wit, and ebullience.

Fans of The Ring cycle might find it a strange musical creature, a Wagnerian torso with the head of Rossini and a Donizetti tail. Wagner wrote the work when he was twenty-one and deeply infatuated with popular Italian composers of the day. He loosely based the plot on Shakespeare’s comedy Measure for Measure, setting up the basic conflict right away, when the party-loving, chain-smoking, lap-dancing (in this production) citizens of Palermo, Italy are rudely interrupted by the news that the King’s deputy, Friedrich, has outlawed fornication, or “free love.” Offenders are hand-cuffed and hauled away. One poor guy, Claudio, is arrested and sentenced to death. His girlfriend is pregnant.

This might strike you as grim material for a comedy, but its presentation is lightened considerably by director Nicholas Muni, who throws together characters based on 20th century icons James Dean and Adolf Hitler and then tosses in a sock hop and a smoking nun. Thus, hints of torture aren’t really all that scary. There is some random fiddling around with guns that doesn't quite make sense to me.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris sets a fast pace, the orchestra plays precisely, and the cast demonstrates depth and flexibility. Mark Schnaible, in the role of the uptight Friedrich, offers a commanding performance with a deep, wide-ranging voice. He can act, too. It takes talent to menace convincingly while holding a file folder. Claudia Waite as Isabella seems inexhaustible, combining lyrical, fiery singing with a dynamic stage presence. Soprano Holli Harrison transfixes as Mariana, the wronged wife of Friedrich. She delivers a wrenching aria in a full-bodied, clear voice, singing with tender passion. Tenor Ryan MacPherson, who plays Claudio’s friend Luzio, gyrates a la Elvis and exudes Fonz-like cool while tossing off difficult passages with sensitivity and athleticism.

Brighella, a bumbling Sicilian official played by Kevin Glavin, declares a thirst for brutality. But at the sight of Dorella (a role sung by Lauren Skuce) he melts into a drooling puppy, no match for a luscious woman dripping in silver spangles.

Like Brighella, Wagner seems to say, we all possess an inner puppy, one that’s helpless to resist when faced with unrestrained sexuality. We think differently when we’re aroused.

Never mind the mess of falling in love. In Palermo, the body has its own wisdom.