Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wagner's Shakespearean Oddity

Two days ago, May 22, was Richard Wagner's 200th birthday. [It took me a couple of hours realize that I managed to slip a month in writing that sentence. That is the sort of thing that happens from time to time when there is not an attentive editor in the loop. Fortunately, the following riff on Libesverbot is still basically valid, so I shall just let the error stand as a reminder for the future.] I find it interesting how little attention was given to this date and to the bicentennial in general. Perhaps this is because so much ritual goes into celebrating Wagner every summer at Bayreuth that the rest of the world seems to feel little obligation to celebrate any further. The closest I have come to trying to examine the man beyond the usual warhorses was the pending release of a two-CD collection of his complete music for piano, which I shall be writing about on in the not-too-distant future.

In this context is seems worth hauling out the one piece of Wagner trivia that never seems to get very much attention. This is his second opera, Das Liebesverbot. Wikipedia translates the title into English as "The Ban on Love;" but this conceals the fact that the opera is based on William Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure. It was composed in 1834; and, to provide some perspective, Wagner completed his next two operas, Rienzi and Der fliegende Holländer (the flying Dutchman), in 1842.

Liebesverbot is definitely in a class by itself. My initial reaction was that Wagner was under the influence of Daniel Auber's Fra Diavolo. That reaction was primarily a response to the overture, but the influential opening theme later shows up as a song with chorus. Ironically, Wagner only visited Paris in 1839, long after Liebesverbot received its first performance (which was a disaster). Did he go there to figure out how to get it right?

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