Thursday, April 22, 2010

Give Me Libertine or Give Me Death

Wagner’s early opera Das Liebesverbot
produced by USC Thornton School


Alexandra Loutsion and cast (Photo: Kristina Jacinth)

Das Liebesverbot, a comic opera in two acts
Music and libretto by Richard Wagner
Performed at the USC Bing Theatre, Los Angeles
Produced by the USC Thornton School of Music
Wednesday, April 21, 2010, 8 pm

Additional performances will be:
Friday, April 23 at 8 pm & Sunday, April 25 at 2 pm

Review by Rodney Punt

Among the more intriguing options of the recently launched Ring Festival LA are local productions of two early and rarely performed operas of Richard Wagner. His first, Die Feen (The Fairies), will be staged in South Pasadena by the Lyric Opera of Los Angeles, June 11 to 19.

His second, Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), received its West Coast premiere last evening at USC’s Bing Theatre, staged by the Thornton School of Music’s opera program. (Written by the 21-23 year-old composer during 1834-6, the work had never been performed in the USA until a 2008 Glimmerglass Opera mounting in Cooperstown, New York.)

Das Liebesverbot, it turns out, is a hoot of an opera, and it was given a high-energy, musically proficient and theatrically sophisticated production by its college-age performers under the direction of an inspired Thornton faculty and staff.

One of three operas of his apprenticeship, Liebesverbot paved the way to Wagner’s finding his own musical voice. Like its early companions, it was written as a stylistic pastiche of the composer’s older musical contemporaries. Die Feen had assimilated the German romantic tradition of Carl Maria von Weber. Wagner’s third opera, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes) has often been called the best Grand Opera Meyerbeer never composed.

A big leap forward from Feen, Liebesverbot is Wagner’s valentine to the Italian bel canto tradition, and especially to Vincenzo Bellini, a composer he was to venerate all his life. Along with Bellini’s long-lined melodic influence, the opera is infused with comic elements of Rossini, even as it employs the orchestral structure of operas by Beethoven and Weber.

Liebesverbot is a “numbers” opera par excellence (a style the composer would repudiate later in life as his craft matured into music drama). Wagner's own clever libretto triggers the opera's musical momentum, with extensive recitatives, arias, duets, and over-the-top choral ensembles all in a reasonable facsimile of Italian opera, but set to German. Recurrent melodramatic climaxes come as frequently as Wagner’s reported sensual ones during this fervid period in his life when he was sowing wild oats. Despite excesses, on its own wacky, hyperbolic terms, the work succeeds as musical entertainment.

Wagner crafted the libretto from Shakespeare’s rather sour social comedy, Measure for Measure. In Shakespeare's version, the departing Duke of Vienna leaves a local magistrate temporarily in charge. The latter clamps down on the licentious behavior of the city's youth, but later surreptitiously succumbs to the same blandishments he forbids for others. Though it ends happily, Shakespeare’s play examines tensions between license and responsibility, virtue and hypocrisy: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.”

The young, freethinking Wagner, as unbuttoned as today’s unbridled libertarians, had little sympathy with Shakespeare’s nuances. He reset the action to the more exotic and sensual Sicilian capital of Palermo. Advancing an anarchistic agenda of ribald love, Wagner’s plot conflict between the stubborn magistrate, a dour Lutheran named Friedrich, and his town of titillating teenagers, boils down to something like, “Give Me Libertine or Give Me Death.” Call it a musical offering not so much to humanity as to hormone-ity.

What better forces to mount this carnal caramel than the bevy of talented USC students on the Bing stage last evening? No less than eleven principals, twenty-five chorus members, six supernumeries, and forty-nine pit musicians, as named in the program, accounted themselves admirably in the intimate theater.

Kyung Teak Lim’s plangent baritone and determined brow invested the compromised religious magistrate Friedrich with enough force to (temporarily) counterbalance the amorous leanings of virtually the entire rest of the cast.

Kyung Teak Lim (Photo: Kristina Jacinth)

Alexandra Loutsion (photo at top) brought conviction to the pivotal role of Isabella, who reluctantly wears the nun’s habit that Friedrich wants to inhabit, but eventually exposes his hypocrisy and frees the township from his harsh rule. Loutsion’s rich, near-spinto soprano lacked only a clearer enunciation to achieve its fullest dramatic impact.

Eric Hanson’s lyric tenor was convincing as Luzio, the interlocutor who eventually wins Isabella’s affections. Federico Flores’ comic baritone gave us chuckles as the police captain Brighella, so taken with Sophie Wingland’s Dorella, a quicksilver soubrette with a starlet’s presence.

Sophie Wingland and Federico Flores (Photo: Kristina Jacinth)

Xiaobo Su’s sweet soprano gave convincing pathos to Mariana, a second nun and the abandoned wife of Friedrich. Her Scene 2 opening duet with Loutsion is a lovely precursor to the famous duet in Delibes' Lakmé.

Yuloong Kim's plaintive tenor garnered sympathy for the victimized Claudio whose potential death sentence for impregnating a girl sparks the rebellion against Friedrich.

Other principals included tenor Jon Keenan and baritone Travis Sherwood as Claudio's friends Antonio and Angelo, tenor Jeongmin Wee as the comic Pontio Pilato, and bass Tim Campbell as the innkeeper Danieli. Whether in comic or serious turns, all were effective.

USC’s resident stage director, Ken Cazan, updated the vaguely historic setting to a more edgy 1930’s Palermo. His movement of the cast, including the large chorus and the principals, was fluid and inventive on the intimate Bing stage. A spirit of youthful rambunctiousness reigned. Cazan earns a lion's share of the credit for the work's successful realization.

Cameron Anderson’s beveled-back unit set creates a stage trapezoid that efficiently enters and exits the many performers, and not incidentally helps project their voices into the clear, if non-resonant, Bing Hall.

Jacqueline Saint Anne’s whimsical costumes lent jolly charm, and sassy spice, to the action. David Jacques' lighting set the moods with spinning chaos on a crowd scene, later a melancholy dead-tree assemblage. Lighting and costumes employed three colors symbolically: red for licentious love, grey for the repression of natural behavior, and white for purity of character, notably of the two nuns and a vulnerable Claudio and his pregnant wife.

Conducting a crack USC pit orchestra, Brent McMunn gave the long, sometimes disjointed musical line of this early Wagner work an authoritative thrust, almost preventing the many similar numbers from losing a certain freshness during the course of a long evening. Reportedly only 50 or so of the 500 pages of the original score were trimmed. McMunn also had obvious rapport with his singers, their assurance apparent in the spontaneity of the performance.

Incidentally, Wagner’s orchestration called for a curious low brass instrument known as the cimbasso, which had been employed just three years before in Bellini’s 1831 opera, Norma, so admired by the younger German composer. USC’s orchestra included one last night, reinforcing this production’s overall classy attention to detail.

Major league LA Opera has a top-notch AAA team just down Figueroa Street from the Music Center. With this West Coast premiere of Das Liebesverbot, USC’s Thornton School reminds Los Angeles once again of its status as one of the city's formidable musical treasures.

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