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Ring Festival LA: USC Thornton Opera opts for Wagner's obscure second opera, 'Das Liebesverbot'

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If you had dropped in at a rehearsal in Room 105 at the USC Thornton School of Music earlier this month, you would have caught a lively scene.

Two singers were holding chairs upside-down over their heads — not the usual position, obviously. A young woman was diligently slapping another fellow around. Others practiced headlocks, repeated kisses, crawling on the hard floor. Later there were several run-throughs of a crowd scene in which a gaggle of kids in the chorus swaggered and cavorted around the room, singing and having a fine, rowdy time as the rehearsal pianist rattled off some catchy, comic- opera pitter-patter.

An enlightened visitor might be excused for guessing that he had stumbled upon a revival of an obscure comedy by Rossini that was translated for some strange reason into German. Yet actually this is USC Thornton Opera's contribution to Ring Festival LA, a production that in some ways is even more unusual than the "Ring" itself. It is the West Coast premiere — and only the second staged production in North America — of Wagner's almost completely unknown second opera, "Das Liebesverbot" (The Ban on Love).

At first, resident stage director Ken Cazan and conductor Brent McMunn considered music influenced by Wagner for Ring Festival LA, but eventually they concluded that the obvious choice was right in front of them. "We were both aware that Glimmerglass Opera had done this in '08 (the American premiere) and it had been nicely received," McMunn says.

"And once I listened to it, I just couldn't get my mind off it. It seemed like such a strong, fascinating, interesting piece. [Also] we had the voices this year to do it. That was very critical."

Despite our present-day mania for assembling the "complete everything" by the great composers, "Das Liebesverbot" — along with Wagner's other early operas "Die Feen" and "Rienzi" — remain in the shadows, rarely tested by revivals. In the case of "Liebesverbot," we may be missing out on a lost gem, if a modest and atypical one by Wagnerian standards.

With Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" as inspiration, Wagner moved the location from Vienna to the Sicilian city of Palermo, where a prudish German governor declares love and revelry to be illegal, punishable by death. Eventually the governor is hoisted by his own petard and immediately the piece becomes deliciously contemporary to anyone up on the latest political sex scandals.

"[Wagner] wrote it as a protest against the German feudal society mentality at the time and the kind of music that was coming out of it," Cazan says. "He had come across this sensualist, anything-goes philosophy, and he absolutely embraced it with this piece. At the end, a nun gets rid of her habit and says, ‘I love ya'; two nuns do that!"

Moreover, this opera will make those who like to play the game of name-that-influence very happy. The base is a goulash of Italian bel canto with German and French ingredients — still entrenched in the old recitative-aria-ensemble patterns — but there is a feeling of weight and breadth in the frivolities and some pointers to the immediate future (the march in the "Rienzi" Overture) and as far away as "Parsifal." Alexandra Loutsion, a promising young soprano who sings the key role of Isabella (one of the nuns), hears a "Tannhäuser" moment in one of her recitatives — and her character often looks backward to the heroic Leonora of Beethoven's "Fidelio."

It's an early glimpse at an impressionable yet willful young composer gifted with extraordinary insight into human nature that would bloom in the "Ring."

There's even a good story behind the premiere in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1836, one of opera's epic fiascos. By Wagner's account — albeit not 100% reliable — in his autobiography, the first performance was under-rehearsed, the title was censored, the audience didn't know what was going on (the librettos weren't printed in time). The second performance never came off, for a backstage fistfight broke out between the tenor singing Claudio and the husband of the prima donna singing Isabella. Just as well, since only three people showed up in the audience.

Yet while other opening night flops by major composers went on to become box office hits ("La Traviata," "Madama Butterfly," etc.), "Das Liebesverbot" has yet to find its audience.

"In contemporary financial terms, it's almost prohibitive," Cazan says. "We are being stretched to within an inch of our lives here. You know, it's a massive chorus. If you do it literally, it has two or three potentially different sets."

McMunn speculates another reason may be reverence for this composer's wishes. "I think it has something to do with the mystique of Wagner himself. He didn't want it performed at Bayreuth. Donizetti, we are interested in his unknown serious operas. But Wagner, we go with what he said."

Or perhaps because this isn't the Wagner that audiences have come to know? "Certainly it's why I'd go see it," Cazan says, speaking for the connoisseurs.

In any case, Cazan is updating the action to Depression-era Palermo of the 1930s (Glimmerglass pushed it into the 1950s). Meeting four nights a week, six hours a day, group rehearsals started in February — and with all of the hard work that was going on at this advanced point, the atmosphere in Room 105 felt lighthearted, full of fun, the piece's energy having taken hold.

Indeed, with its other project being Britten's "Albert Herring" last fall, comedy is king at USC Thornton Opera this season.

"That was the big thrill," declares Cazan. "Nobody died!"

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