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Early Wagner: Splendor Soon to Come

Corrado Rovaris
The New York Times

Wagner’s mature operas have created an image of him as the high priest of a cult based on a severe sort of German aesthetic mysticism. But “Das Liebesverbot” (“The Ban on Love”), from 1836, provides rare insight into a period when he was a young man searching for both style and substance. The opera, Wagner’s second, is being performed at Glimmerglass Opera here, in what is billed as its North American fully staged premiere.

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” “Liebesverbot” reveals a Wagner only slightly more than the sum of his influences. It mixes elements of the Italian bel canto and French opera styles, with touches of Mozart, Beethoven and Weber.

Yet despite those copious borrowings and an antic tone never again encountered in his work, “Liebesverbot” unquestionably contains traces of the mature Wagner in embryonic form: in breathless string shimmers anticipating those of “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin”; in the simple melodic figure in the overture that serves as a leitmotif; and in the vocal heft of the principal female role. Portentousness lingers even in ribald scenes, auguring the grandiosity to come.

Wagner took up Shakespeare’s ban on love as a way to condemn German stuffiness and prudery. In writing his own libretto, he cast off Shakespeare’s itinerant duke, focusing instead on Angelo, the deputy left behind to rule in the duke’s absence. He moved the action from Vienna to Sicily but pointedly turned Angelo into Friedrich, a transplanted German. His comeuppance is eventually dealt by Isabella, a novice who leaves the convent to free Claudio, her brother, sentenced to death for the crime of impregnating his fiancée.

Just as Wagner took liberties with Shakespeare, the director Nicholas Muni has his way with “Liebesverbot,” tinkering with actions and motivations. No serious harm comes of his meddling. But when a passing thunderstorm briefly knocked out the electricity during the second act on Sunday afternoon, you had to wonder if Wagner had hurled bolts from Valhalla to extinguish the jargon-filled supertitles. (If so, it worked until near the end.)

Sicilian villagers have been costumed by Kaye Voyce in 1950s sock-hop styles; the constables, wielding electric prods, are puritans in dour shades of gray. Cigarette vendors and gun dealers, you would imagine, are the richest men in town.

The singing on Sunday, by contrast, was serious business. Despite a vocally uneven first act, the soprano Claudia Waite was a bold, assertive Isabella, with blazing top notes and a presence to make you believe that a virginal nun could outfox a career politician. Her voice appreciably bloomed in the second act.

Mark Schnaible, a bass-baritone, brought a robust sound and a genuine sense of inner turmoil to Friedrich. Richard Cox, a tenor, was eloquent and lyrical as Claudio. The charismatic tenor Ryan MacPherson played Luzio, Claudio’s randy friend and Isabella’s would-be suitor, like a pomade-slicked James Dean.

Lauren Skuce, a soprano, played Dorella with spunk and brazen sex appeal. In the buffo role of Brighella, a power-hungry police chief, the bass Kevin Glavin was both wildly funny and surprisingly humane. Joseph Gaines, a tenor, was impressive as Pontio Pilato, by turns a flesh peddler and a jailer.

Corrado Rovaris, the conductor, drew a stylish, mostly secure performance from the chorus and orchestra. If, in the end, the value of reviving “Liebesverbot” more often remained dubious, there was no question that it was worth sampling once.