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Wagner burlesque: Das Liebesverbot.

Photo: Cory Weaver/Glimmerglass Opera

Cattle Prods and Coffin Nails

By B.A. Nilsson

Das Liebesverbot

By Richard Wagner, conducted by Corrado Rovaris, directed by Nicholas Muni

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.

Das 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 act two.

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 Hardy-like dignity.

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 doll.

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.

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