(b. Leipzig, 22 May 1813 – d, Venice, 13 February 1883)
“Das Liebesverbot oder die Novize von Palermo”
Grand Comic Opera in two acts (1836)
Because he was concerned with drama as a whole, rather than just the composition of the music, Richard Wagner wrote both the words and the music for each of his works. After his ground-breaking works Tannhauser and Lohengrin, Wagner no longer applied the traditional term opera to describe his works, preferring the more appropriate description music drama instead. His music dramas and their productions were so innovative and important that Wagner’s influence not only caused major changes in both music and opera, but also in art, literature, and staging as well. Often today opera buffs think of Der fliegende Hollander, written during 1841, as Wagner’s earliest dramatic work. However, there were three complete operas that proceeded it. These earlier works are operas in the traditional sense, influenced by the popular works of the day by composers such as Weber and Donizetti.
Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen, was completed by the twenty-year old in December of 1833. During the following year, he had hoped to see his youthful work performed, and rehearsals had begun, but the work never reached performance. In fact, the premiere of Die Feen took place five years after Wagner’s death.
Soon after completing Die Feen, Wagner began thinking about a second opera. In May, 1834, while vacationing in Teplitz, he climbed the steps to the Schlackenburg, and there began the sketch for the lyric to a new work to be called Das Liebesverbot, a story of forbidden love. By the fall of 1834 he had completed the prose draft and the entire opera was finished by the beginning of 1836. While Die Feen had been written in the German opera style of Beethoven and Weber, the new work was based on French and Italian light opera. Wagner drew his subject from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, removing the seriousness of Shakespeare’s original and reshaping the material. Shakespeare’s drama had been set in Venice; Wagner moved the action to Palermo.
The first of the two act drama begins when the King of Sicily leaves on a trip to Naples. He places a puritanical German named Friedrich in charge during his absence. Friedrich immediately sets out on a moral crusade, closing the houses of amusement in a Palermo suburb and taking occupants, servants, and proprietors as prisoners. The people are not happy with this rampage and a mob interferes. During a riot, a rakish noble named Luzio assumes the role of the people’s leader. Luzio’s friend, Claudio, is arrested on a charge of indiscretion with a lady and taken to prison. The lady, however, is really Claudio’s fiancée, whom he has been prevented from marrying by her parents. Fredrich uncovers a forgotten law decreeing that Claudio’s crime warrants decapitation. Claudio’s only hope lies with his sister, Isabella, who has become a nun. Only she, he believes, can succeed in softening the heart of the tyrant Friedrich. Luzio travels to the convent to ask for her help. When Claudio’s trial commences, Isabella arrives to privately plead with Friedrich for the life of her brother. Her pleas are so impassioned that Friedrich becomes completely enamored of her and in an uncontrolled outburst, he tells her that he will grant her anything she desires in return for sexual favors. She realizes that to save her brother she must give in to this man, and she promises fulfillment on the following night. In the second act, the story becomes more complex, but basically, Isabella goes back to her convent to get Marianne, Friedrich’s wife, whom he had banished during one of his tirades, and arranges for her to take Isabella’s place in the sexual encounter with an unsuspecting Friedrich. The two are discovered in the act, however, and Claudio is freed from prison. In the end, the King returns to restore order.
At the time of the completion of the opera, Wagner was employed at Magdeburg as the director of the theater company run by a man named Heinrich Bethmann. It was there that the premiere took place on 29 March 1836. However, the production did not go well. First of all, the Magdeburg police objected to the title, which they considered immoral, and Wagner was forced to change it for the Magdeburg performances to Die Novize von Palermo. Fortunately the police did not read the libretto, satisfied when Wagner told them that his story was based on one of the classic dramas of the great English bard, Shakespeare. Real trouble soon began, however. Wagner had assumed some expenses for the company during the previous summer, when he had toured Germany looking for singers for the upcoming season. Bethmann had told Wagner that he was entitled to two benefit performances at the end of the season to recoup these expenses, and these benefits would be performances of the young man’s opera. By March, the company was seriously in debt, with salaries unpaid and singers searching for other employment. Bethmann arranged for an initial benefit performance at the end of the season to provide reimbursement for the props and scenery that had been necessary for the staging of the opera. Wagner’s benefits would follow.
Apparently, only because of the fondness for Wagner held by the singers and musicians, ready to abandon the sinking Bethmann barge as quickly as possible, did they agree to remain for the two benefit performances of the young director’s opera. But they were so little familiar with their parts that the performance quickly turned into a complete fiasco. In fact, the tenor who played Luzio slipped into sections of Fra Diavolo and Zampa when his memory failed him. The programs describing the text of the opera were not printed in time, so the audience had little understanding of what was going on before them and at the end of the opera, they departed in bewilderment. Thus, on the night of the second performance, only three people were seated in the audience. Meanwhile, before the overture had even started, a fight broke out backstage. The husband of the soprano who played Isabella struck the tenor who played Claudio in the face. The soprano then ran out of the theater in hysterics. The performance was cancelled,
Wagner tried to get the work produced in Berlin, Leipzig, and finally in 1840 he tried to gain interest in Paris, but by this time he himself, now absorbed in the writing his next opera, Rienzi, was loosing interest in the earlier work, and he will never hear Das Liebesverbot performed again.
In 1866, Wagner presented his score for Das Liebesverbot to his friend and patron King Ludwig of Bavaria, apologizing for this “sin of my youth.” After Ludwig’s death, the score remained in limbo until 1888 when, after the first performance of Die Feen, there was talk of producing Das Liebesverbot, but the effort was dropped after the potential producers decided that the libretto was to licentious. Interest in the work fell by the wayside until 1922, when the vocal score was finally published, followed by the full score in the following year. At this time, the work was produced in several German theaters. Recordings of both Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot have been released, but availability has been rather limited.
Don Robertson, 2004
Performance material: Breitkopf und Härtel, Wiesbaden