There are certainly very few chances to attend a live performance of Wagner’s second opera, Das Liebesverbot, considered even after its timid revival in the 1980s little short of a venial sin by a dazed and confused young genius. The Teatro Real has joined forces with the Royal Opera House and The Teatro Colón in an honest attempt to vindicate the opera's far-fetched plot and eclectic score. This production will probably not make a major contribution to the restoration of this opera but one could also legitimately think that Das Liebesverbot has already had its fair share of opportunities to get into the repertoire.

Based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the opera tells the story of several lustful young men and women trying to celebrate carnival in Palermo, under the boot of a German governor, Friedrich. He is by far the most interesting character in the story, a sort of mixture between Don Pizarro and Scarpia, whose decision on banning love (in the least pastoral sense) triggers a playful revolution by the people of Palermo. The opera anticipates some of the topics that were to obsess Wagner throughout his life (customary limits to love, tormented opposition between carnality and redemption) but the plot is messy, full of contradictions and with under-developed characters. The music is an interesting (at least from an academic point of view) assimilation of bel canto, with constant echoes of Rossini, and integrates some of the innovative language that authors like Meyerbeer were developing at the time. The result is a clumsy comedy with some inspired music and an implausible plot that offered little of interest to the 1830s audience.

Kasper Holten's production failed to showcase what Das Liebesverbot can offer to a 2016 audience. The orchestra played at its best, with good and polished sound and with contagious enthusiasm for the first time in the season. Even if Ivor Bolton gave a vivid rendition of the score, with quick tempi and vibrant accent, he did not find the unclassifiable tone that the score requires (he cannot be too harshly blamed, though). He rightly underlined the comic traits with a joyous touch of operetta and saturating sound in the tutti, favouring volume over contrast and colour. The chorus suffered a bit from the loud pit but sounded fine in the carnival scenes.

A more attractive cast would have raised the stakes of the performance, but no singer seemed willing (or able) to take the lead. Manuela Uhl is a fine singer with a powerful lyric soprano that makes her perfect for Wagner's “blonde heroines". Isabella, unfortunately, does not fall under this category, its vocal filiation being chiefly Italian, with plenty of bel canto elements. Uhl overcame bravely the trickiest agility parts but failed to impress where a bel canto soprano would have felt at ease. She offered a mock-heroic Isabella who certainly added to the show.

Christopher Maltman was brilliant as the awkward villain, Friedrich. He is a great actor and was the only one who offered an original and genuinely comic performance. Vocally, his lyric baritone lacked authority and even timbre, but he gave an overall good rendition. Bass Ante Jerkunica, an interesting voice, made the most of his funny judgement scene. Ilker Arcayürek was overwhelmed by the otherwise reasonable requirements of the beautifully written role of Claudio, and even lost his voice during the final duo with Isabella. The other tenor, of a very similar vocality, Peter Lodahl, had better fortune as Luzio.

Holten faced the daunting challenge of making an imperfect opera work on stage and, although he managed to offer an entertaining show, it was an overall unsuccessful attempt. He went for light and trivial comedy and compensated for the libretto’s irregular rhythm with agile stage solutions, such as the conveyor belt and the smartphone duet between Claudio and Isabella, everything supported by an Escherian set by Steffen Aarfing. The carnival scenes, on the other hand, lacked tension and skillful direction. Holten’s major limitation as director is his apparent preoccupation with pleasing everybody, with a constant fear of crossing the boundaries of the conventional. The ideas are there, outlined on stage, but something prevents their blooming. The anecdotic tribute to Wagner’s operas in the carnival or the resolution of the North-South opposition with the uncalled-for appearance of Angela Merkel at the end of the opera are good examples of this: toothless transgression without a coherent discourse. In the absence of full-blooded comedy, the show at least prompted a few smiles, which is more than Wagner could have reasonably expected.