If Germany had had a television talent show in the 1830s, would the audience have been able to spot the rising genius of one Richard Wagner? Probably not, judging by the première of his early opera Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) in 1836, since this was a resounding flop and it was never again performed in the composer’s lifetime. In his later memoirs, Wagner referred to it as “a sin of youth”. And yet, there is much to delight here, and not only musicologists, so all credit to the Chelsea Opera Group for rescuing it from its inevitable under-exposure.

Anthony Negus © Connaught Artists
Anthony Negus
© Connaught Artists

The overture, which begins uniquely with a few bars of castanets, tambourine and triangle, and which can easily be mistaken for Offenbach (or indeed Sullivan), immediately establishes the world of grand comic opera. These first eight minutes highlight a technique that was to feature in all the composer’s later works – the leitmotiv –  in the form of reappearing germ-cells associated with the main characters.

For his libretto, Wagner drew loosely on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Interestingly, for a composer more commonly seen as a leading representative of German nationalism, Wagner seemed to go out of his way to include every non-German element he could think of, including Italian and French operatic conventions. When he wrote it, he was still in his own Sturm und Drang phase, openly rebelling against state authority, so much so that the official censorship at the time insisted on the sub-title, Die Novizin von Palermo (The Novice of Palermo), replacing the given title at the première.

Wagner transfers the action from the original Vienna to Palermo, where the German viceroy Friedrich, a precursor of Alberich, decides just before the start of the carnival season to put an end to debauchery and drunkenness and threatens death for any breaches of his edict. Instantly we have the two themes that later so preoccupied the composer, the struggle between power and love. As the action unfolds, Friedrich’s hypocrisy and dastardly behaviour emerge: he has abandoned his own wife, Mariana, and proposes that the novice nun Isabella should offer him sexual favours in exchange for the life of her brother Claudio, who has been arrested for fathering an illegitimate child.

A successful concert performance of any opera, especially a comic one, depends on more than just minimal stage direction. If the characters are to come alive they need dramaturgical body language and appropriate theatricality in the voice. Sheepish grins and a few displacement activities in the form of tie-fiddling, as in the case of Luzio, Claudio’s friend and Isabella’s would-be suitor, here sung by Paul Curievici, didn’t cut the mustard. In the second scene of Act I, in which he declares his love for the novice nun, he hardly looked at her across the platform. Vocally, too, there was a lack of grace, with a hectoring tone and wide vibrato which often covered up the strain in his upper register. Nicholas Folwell, as the police chief Brighella, showed a particular care for his words and displayed all the necessary authority in his rounded delivery. Peter Hoare in the tenor role of Claudio enunciated clearly and sensitively. In the most important male role, that of Friedrich, David Soar revealed a sinister stentorian bass but he was also alive to the opportunities given him towards the end of Act II scene 2, where the music moves into the minor mode and his vulnerability as a prisoner of his own hormones is exposed.

On the distaff side there were few weaknesses and all three ladies acted intelligently throughout. Wagner places enormous demands on his Isabella, and not just in the challenging tessitura, since she sings for most of the two-and-a-half hours and, with pre-echoes of both Senta and Isolde, needs to convey a wide range of emotions including yielding softness and dramatic fortitude. The performance benefited enormously from Helena Dix’s fearless attack and flexibility in this role. A musical high point comes in the final scene where Mariana’s canzonetta “Welch wunderbar’ Erwarten” was tenderly voiced by Kirstin Sharpin. What a shame that she and Friedrich were not given face-masks to underline the key quality of the masquerade here.

For the most part Anthony Negus directed with spirit, though he couldn’t completely disguise the four-square rhythms nor was he able to lighten the dense orchestration which occasionally covered some of the vocal lines. There are a number of instances where Wagner at less than full pelt produces moments of inwardness, such as the plaintive oboe in the exchanges between Friedrich and Isabella towards the end of the first act. Finally, even though the chorus managed to sound suitably lusty when required, far too many had their heads buried in the score, with the voices projected down instead of out into the auditorium.