Sunday, June 19, 2011

Obscure Wagner

Since there is so much attention here in San Francisco to the fact that the better part of this month will be devoted to three San Francisco Opera performances of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, it seems like a good time to dig out some of the less-known aspects of this composer’s life.  My favorite involves one of those criteria that can be held up in arguments over the respective virtues of Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.  Verdi fans like to parade his talents for adapting the great plays of William Shakespeare (usually overlooking the role of Arrigo Boito when the process was a successful one) and then challenging Wagner fans to name even one Shakespeare play that inspired Wagner to write an opera.

These days one can probably answer the question easily enough with the right mix of Google and Wikipedia, but I suspect it still has the capacity to raise eyebrows.  The play is Measure for Measure, and the opera is Das Liebesverbot.  The anonymous booklet that comes with my CD describes it as “still very much in the stylistic tradition of, say, Albert Lortzing and other German composers of the Biedermeier time;”  but I prefer to look beyond the boundaries of Germany.  The first time I heard Wagner’s overture for this opera, it reminded me of the overture to Daniel Auber’s Fra Diavolo;  and, sure enough, Auber’s opera received its premiere in Paris on January 28, 1830 and was a big enough success that Wagner could well have seen the entire opera (or at least heard the overture) before beginning work on Das Liebesverbot opera in 1834.

Whether we are talking Lortzing or Auber, it is clear that Wagner had not yet found his operatic voice in 1834.  I am reminded of a comment I once heard about performing the string quartet that predates the one Arnold Schoenberg published as his first:  Why give a performance of Schoenberg trying to sound like Antonín Dvořák?  Better to save the recording to haul out during a party, when you can exclaim, “You’ll never guess who wrote this one!”

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