burlesque: Das Liebesverbot.
Cory Weaver/Glimmerglass Opera
Prods and Coffin Nails
Richard Wagner, conducted by Corrado Rovaris, directed by
Glimmerglass Opera, July 28
As the Liebesverbot Overture churns to its finish,
Ryan MacPherson, as Luzio, sashays in front of the curtain
and Elvis-ishly gyrates as he plays with his Elvis-like hair.
He lights a (stage effect) gasper; he zips his fly. Which
welcomes us to another phallo-centric Glimmerglass Opera version
of a piece that either should have been treated with more
respect or been left to molder in deserved obscurity.
Liebesverbot was Wagner’s second finished opera, a piece
inspired by (but rewritten from) Shakespeare’s Measure
for Measure. We’re shifted from Vienna to Palermo, but
the new regent, Friedrich (Mark Schnabile) remains, in Wagner’s
words, “as German as possible.” He is on a campaign to shut
down all entertainment, and has death-sentenced the unfortunate
Claudio (Richard Cox) pursuing “free love” with his girlfriend—who,
in the original, has borne him a child. But wait.
Wagner termed this a comedy, and there are flashes of Rossini-esque
merriment here and there. But the piece has a somber center
that unconvincingly anticipates Rienzi, its successor.
John Conklin’s stage design makes excellent use of Glimmerglass’
unifying unit, which suggests Shakespeare’s Globe, but it’s
put in the context of German expressionist look that also
informs costumes and lighting, making it seem at times that
you’ve stumbled into Wozzeck.
And then the cattle prods came out. The concept was to emphasize
the dastardliness of Friedrich’s crowd control, but the crowd
scenes in this production were in more need of a choreographer.
Even the more stylized moments, as when a succession of prisoners
was administered ritual shocks, lacked the precision of movement
to seem aught but limp. But those prods and the many cigarettes
mock-smoked kept a succession of phallic symbols before us.
The convoluted plot brings Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Claudia
Waite) out of a convent to persuade Friedrich to spare her
brother. Their scenes are supposed to be suffused with eroticism,
which Wagner’s music supports in its own bombastic way, but
the frat-house dick-grabbing and tit-squeezing in the revelry
scenes set a strikingly non-erotic precedent.
If there’s any consistency to Wagner’s all-over-the-map approach
to this piece, it’s melodrama, which can be played with conviction
when there’s faith in the material. But staging it as if Fritz
Lang was collaborating with Fellini only added to its fragmentation.
A different piece was performed vocally. Some excellent singers
were turned loose on this turgid material, with much of the
demand on Waite. Her second-act scene with Cox, arguing over
the terms under which she can save him, were vocally and dramatically
the most interesting of the opera.
Although Schnabile’s first entrance wasn’t as imposing as
its buildup would suggest—with his short hair, suit and horn-rims,
he looked like Stan Freberg—he delivered a killer aria in
Joseph Gaines as Pontius Pilate (one of the opera’s few good
jokes lurks behind the name) was channeling Stanley Tucci
in The Devil Wears Prada, bringing good timing and
a very nice voice to the character. Kevin Glavin’s Brighella
is a petty bureaucrat who comes alive with a passion for Dorella
(Lauren Skuce), given good life by Glavin’s basso voice and
buffo timing. He even managed his turn in drag with Oliver
Juliet Petrus sang the smallish role of Julia, Claudio’s beloved.
Petrus was excellent last season when, as an understudy, she
stepped in as Eurydice in the Gluck opera, and she submitted
with admirable grace to the silly finish of this piece, when
she gave birth on stage to an umbilically unencumbered plastic
Once upon a time, the opera stage was a fulsome haven of stand-and-sing
productions. We’ve swung way too far in the other direction,
with “concept” the star, and I look forward to the day when
opera directors will be courageous enough to treat a piece
with the respect it deserves.