Youthful Exuberance, in Wagner's 'Das Liebesverbot'

Benjamin BrunsRichard Wagner once called his second opera, Das Liebesverbot, a "sin of my youth."  It's easy to see why.  This lighthearted effort offers up any number of ingredients Wagner might have condemned outright had they sprung from a mind other than his own.

Wagner wrote Das Liebesverbot -- The Ban on Love -- in the mid-1830's, when he was barely 21 years old.  As with all his operas, he wrote the libretto himself, basing it on Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure

Even the most basic description of the score makes it virtually unique among Wagner's operas.  It's a comedy.  The only other opera he wrote that might be considered comic is Die Meistersinger.  But as comedies go, that one would have to be called a heavyweight -- clocking in at more than 4 hours long and hefting some pretty serious themes along the way.

By comparison, Die Meistersinger also shows us another reason for the more mature Wagner to have been less than happy with Das Liebesverbot.  Meistersinger famously ends with a sort of paean to the dominance of German art and culture -- an element that's controversial even among Wagner's most loyal fans. 

In Das Liebesverbot, the youthful Wagner took the opposite approach.  Along with other young musicians of the time, he was in a rebellious phase.  Thematically, the opera strikes a stand against authority -- and against German authority in particular.  So in the opera's music, Wagner seemed to go out of his way to incorporate every non-German musical element he could think of, using any number of French and Italian operatic conventions in the process.  He even made the basic change of pointedly resetting the opera's action -- moving the story from Shakespeare's original locale, Vienna, to the Sicilian city of Palermo.  Considering all that, it's not surprising that in retrospect, Wagner looked back on his second opera with a bemused eye.

On the other hand, the composer might have been well pleased by the venue of the production featured here.  On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Das Liebesverbot from one of Germany's most prestigious and historic musical institutions, the Gewandhaus in Leipzig.  The stars are soprano Melanie Diener, baritone Morten Frank Larsen and tenor Benjamin Bruns, in a performance led by conductor Kristjan Järvi.