In the birthplace of Wagner, Oper Leipzig programmed a must-see line-up of its productions of his early works for its Wagner-Festtage: Das Liebesverbot, Die Feen and Rienzi. Das Liebesverbot begins very strangely. The Italian style of the overture, with its staccato rhythms and giddy melodious momentum don’t fit with your expectations from this composer. Yet Aron Stiehl's production steadily grows on you. In Act I, everything quickly falls into place when Christian Hübner’s Brighella orders the conductor to stop playing for stage adjustments. A sign with “Leipzig Baustelle” (construction site) emerges from the pit. Breaking the ice, this moment received whole-hearted laughter from the audience. The production flies by, highly entertaining and musically engaging. With a vibrant but minimal set, Stiehl’s buffa interpretation highlights Wagner’s music and comedy.

Lydia Easley (Isabella) and Tuomas Pursio (Friedrich) © Kirsten Nijhof | Oper Leipzig
Lydia Easley (Isabella) and Tuomas Pursio (Friedrich)
© Kirsten Nijhof | Oper Leipzig

Composed in 1834, Wagner adapted his libretto from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In Act I, Claudio (Paul McNamara) is imprisoned for his licentiousness by Friedrich, the German overseer of Palermo while the king is away. His friend Luzio must ask Claudio’s sister, Isabella (who is about to enter a nunnery) to beg for his life during his trial. When Isabella recognises Friedrich as the husband who abandoned her convent sister Mariana, she pretends to seduce him and successfully exposes him in a scheme that unfolds in Act II. The opera ends happily, when Friedrich is forgiven and the king returns, reinstating Palermo’s free spirit.

Stiehl and set designer Jürgen Kirner had walls move back and forth to change the setting from a wild green jungle, to number-covered walls of the lawful world, to the pure white panels of the nunnery. Christian Schatz’ vibrant lighting enhanced the mood, whether different shades of blue during the more despairing arias, or red for fiery moments when desires were exclaimed.

With an extraordinary vocal richness and authentic warmth, Lydia Easley commanded the stage as Isabella and owned the production. Her dramatic flair and natural comedic timing led to consistent laughter.

Olena Tokar (Mariana) © Kirsten Nijhof | Oper Leipzig
Olena Tokar (Mariana)
© Kirsten Nijhof | Oper Leipzig
Even without English surtitles, the comedy transcended language through stimulating slapstick and caricaturist facial expressions. In her duets with the Dan Karlström’s impressive Luzio she charmed with a genuine romantic tone, while later the furious spirit of her voice convinced in anger. She sounded devious as she concocted her scheme at the end of Act I. You did not want to mess with her. Her aria “Kennst du das Leidder Elternlosen” proved one of the many vocal highlights of the evening.

Prepared by Alessandro Zuppardo, the Chor Oper Leipzig offered great energy every time they took over the stage. Dressed by Sven Bindseil in wild cat prints, bell-bottoms and dresses, they had a carnival-esque appearance of a hippie jungle tribe, even including some lost cavemen. Cheerful dances kept the momentum on stage going. This choir is a force to be reckoned with.

As the German overseer who falls for Isabella, Tuomas Pursio’s Friedrich made for unexpected despair in his aria “Ja glühend, wie des Südens Hauch”. At other moments his villainy foreshadowed the puritan antagonists of Wagner’s later operas. Olena Tokar offered vulnerability and strength to Mariana. Her voice reflected a metallic resilience. She provided a nice contrast in her opening duet with Easley, and performed a showstopper in Akt II with “Welch’ Wunderbar Erwarten”, her distress and longing heartfelt.

Opernchor and Tuomas Pursio (Friedrich) © Kirsten Nijhof | Oper Leipzig
Opernchor and Tuomas Pursio (Friedrich)
© Kirsten Nijhof | Oper Leipzig

The comedic romance between Brighella and Dorella kept the proceedings fun. Christian Hübner and Magdalena Hinterdobbler charmed together, as well as during their solos. Sejong Chang (Danieli) on high heels popped on stage with his slapstick theatrics in drag. Jürgen Kurth (Angelo) and Martin Petzold (Pontio Pilato) also offered some comical moments. The quality of Leipzig ensemble’s supporting cast consistently impressed.

Robin Engelen led the Gewandhaus Orchestra with exciting momentum and luxurious sound. The recurrent melodies never felt repetitive and always carried fresh energy, his comedic musical punctuation perfectly in tune with the on-stage shenanigans.

Since Wagner banned his early works from the Festspielhaus, this production was initially performed in a sport’s hall as a co-production with Bayreuth for the composer’s bicentennial. With this orchestra, Stiehl’s Das Liebesverbot found an excellent home in Leipzig.

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