Das Liebesverbot, in concert, Chelsea Opera Group, Cadogan Hall, 25 October 2015

This boisterous, comic opera by the 22-year-old Wagner was entirely outside his subsequent metier, and very different from his first opera Die Feen, completed a year earlier. It is also his only one based on a Shakespeare play, in this case the aptly named Measure for Measure — judge not lest ye be judged.

The names differ from Shakespeare’s, particularly Friedrich (Shakespeare’s Angelo), the puritanical Viceroy who cancels the carnival and proclaims a ban on love — hence the title Das Liebesverbot. Angelo in the opera is a friend of Claudio, the young man who will be put to death for having had a child out of wedlock. This inspires determined action from his sister Isabella, who leaves the convent she shares with another novice, Mariana and pleads for his life. Friedrich, once married to Mariana, whom he abandoned, now finds himself lusting after Isabella, and the stage is set for his come-uppance. This is contrived by Isabella, who agrees to sleep with him but switches places with Mariana.

The music with its numerous duets, so atypical of Wagner, was beautifully played under the baton of Anthony Negus, who produced glorious kinetic energy for the tuneful overture. Had Wagner written the score for a bucolic ballet like La fille mal gardée he could hardly have done better, and I almost expected a clog dance! Wonderful forward movement, and such a pleasure to be at a concert performance with no directorial mumbo jumbo to interfere with the grip and wit of the music.

Singing was of uniformly high standard, particularly the power, persuasion and wit of Helena Dix as Isabella. She was well matched by the gravitas and firmness of David Soar as Friedrich, who produced an excellent soliloquy (Was hat ein Weib) on the anxiety of human passion. Superb singing and diction from Nicholas Folwell as his captain Brighella, and fine lyricism from Peter Hoare as Claudio. There were strong moments from all cast members, but I particularly liked Kirstin Sharpin in the relatively small role of Mariana, whose Welch wunderbares Erwarten was sung with exquisite feeling.

A triumph for the Chelsea Opera Group, their chorus and orchestra under conductor Anthony Negus, who brought out the high points of this little known opera. It may be a curiosity rather than a rare gem, but no matter — this was all hugely enjoyable.

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