Like his contemporary Mendelssohn, Wagner was bitten early by the Shakespeare bug. Long before he set his sights on the creation of music dramas, the teenage Richard nourished ambitions for the ‘straight theatre’.  His first attempt at a stage work was a dramatic tragedy, Leubald, which featured a range of devices – murderous stepfathers, ghosts and star-cross'd lovers – obviously imported from the Bard's plays; and his first attempt at musical composition was a setting of Romeo’s final soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet. It was the sense that his poetry was striving for a higher effect that couldn't be reached through words alone that prompted the stage-struck young man towards the idea of the “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk), in which music, poetry and drama would operate in combination.

María Miró (Mariana) and Manuela Uhl (Isabella) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
María Miró (Mariana) and Manuela Uhl (Isabella)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

Wagner was most literally inspired by Shakespeare when he chose Measure for Measure as the basis of his second completed opera, Das Liebesverbot, which was first performed in Magdeburg in 1836. It was an interesting, and in many ways, prophetic choice: in common with most of the bard’s ‘problem plays’ – plays which are nominally classed as comedies because they have ‘happy’ endings but into which darker elements intrude – Measure for Measure was out of favour during the Victorian era: its themes of sexual incontinence and civic corruption offended against bourgeois sensibilities. This very ‘offensiveness’ may have been what drew the would-be insurrectionist young composer to the play. But perhaps he saw other things in it too?

In Shakespeare’s play, set in Vienna, an autocratic Duke goes on a mysterious ‘sabbatical’, investing his deputy – the inflexible legalist, Angelo – with all his authority. Angelo ruthlessly enforces laws which have been allowed to grow slack and among the many convicted of crimes against public morality is a young man (Claudio) whose sister (Isabella) has just entered a convent. When Isabella goes before Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, the Deputy is inflamed with lust and the desire to possess her – he gives her to understand that the only way she can save her brother is by “yielding up (her) body to (his) will”. The moral quandary in which this places Isabella and Claudio is resolved by the presence of Marianna, once betrothed to Angelo and still in love with him, who allows herself to be substituted for Isabella in Angelo's bed. With the help of the Duke, who throughout the play has observed the action in the disguise of a friar, all is resolved and the play ends with ‘fairness’ restored and three improbable marriages.

Wagner transports the action to Palermo and compresses Shakespeare’s five acts into two.  The absent Duke become a literally absent King, whose ‘abdication’ precedes the action, and Angelo becomes ‘Friedrich’, a German jurist who has, somehow, worked his way up to a top job at court. Demonstrating that national stereotypes were well-established even in the 1830s, Wagner makes much of the clash of the ‘cold German’ with the free-spirited Italians. Friedrich’s former lover Marianna has entered the convent after he ended their relationship, so Isabella has this ace up her sleeve from the moment Friedrich makes his proposition.

Like all his early works, Das Liebesverbot has more in common with the operas of Bellini than with the style Wagner was later to perfect; but though it may be derivative, it is an astonishingly confident piece of work for a composer still finding his voice. The overture, easily the best known music from the opera, is a rumbustious, percussion-led affair which sets the tone for what follows and we are soon pitched into the heady atmosphere of Palermo at carnival time.

Mindful of his audience's expectations, Wagner replaces Shakespeare’s intimacy with big, extrovert moments, such as the dialogue between Friedrich and Isabella that concludes Act I, where he somehow contrives to include the chorus. Those with keen ears might also detect a theme later put to more famous use in Act III of Tannhauser.

So, what is distinctively ‘Wagnerian’ about Das Liebesverbot? Wagner had yet to evolve the idea of the Leitmotif, or to seriously challenge what was expected on the lyric stage. Das Liebesverbot abounds in choral numbers, dances, even a not terribly comic buffa duet. Yet in Friedrich’s Act II monologue, where he reflects on the temptations to which he must yield, we may discern pre-echoes of Hans Sachs’ ruminations in Die Meistersinger.

And the opera’s central theme of human urges in conflict with man-made law is one to which the composer would obsessively return, in other early works like Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, in mature ones like Tristan und Isolde (where the lovers also come into conflict with a kind of ‘ban on love’) and in his monumental Ring cycle (where Love is shown in direct opposition to Power). For those willing to listen, Das Liebesverbot offers a tantalising preview of the way in which Wagner was to develop.

Not many contemporaries did feel inclined to listen: the première of Das Liebesverbot was one of the most disastrous in operatic history. Wagner’s Shakespearean drama drew an audience of only three on its second night and the performance was abandoned after a backstage brawl between the prima donna’s husband and her lover! It was an experience that would have crushed a lesser artist, but Wagner rose above it and moved on, leaving this Shakespearean opus far behind him. Only in recent decades has it achieve a degree of familiarity, the most recent production being at Madrid’s Teatro Real in February 2016.