Pocket Opera 2022 Review: No Love Allowed

Das Liebesverbot Comes to Life in Berkeley

By Lois Silverstein

Comic? Sassy? Wagner? In English?

That’s what’s on offer with Pocket Opera’s “No Love Allowed,” a bright, energetic revival of Richard Wagner’s second opera, “Das Liebesverbot.” The production features a translation by the company’s beloved founder, Donald Pippin,  as directed by Stage Director Nicholas A. Garcia, and with music conducted by Jonathan Khuner.

In this work, the Sorcerer of Bayreuth entrances with his themes of freedom of love and and the consequences in a society straight-jacketed by puritanical strictures. Supported by the Wagner Society of Northern California, the well-oiled production was as well-received on a warm Sunday afternoon as performed, albeit originally scheduled before the pandemic. It was another testament to the liveliness of the San Francisco Bay Area’s musical and operatic scene.

Loving Shakespeare

Wagner revered Shakespeare. In 1836, the young composer adapted the Bard’s so-called problem play, “Measure for Measure.”  Critics consider a “Problem Play” as one that sets out to dramatize moral questions but not setting out to resolve them. Further, it usually blends comic with serious elements, the result lying neither in one camp nor the other. Here, in “No Love Allowed,” Wagner’s usual thematic concerns how sex and its antithesis in society take center stage. Transporting the setting from Vienna to Palermo, Wagner’s “No Love Allowed” focuses on the conflict between the puritanical governor, Friedrich, and his Love Ban, and its effect on his Italian citizens, who determine to stand that ban on its head.

As was his wont and future practice, Wagner wrote the libretto as well as the music. The plot consists of multiple examples to illustrate this familiar theme: Claudio, sung by tenor Justin Brunette, incarcerated for debauchery; Isabella,  sung by soprano Leslie Sandefur, his sister, and new novice, who aims to liberate him by petitioning the Governor; and Friedrich, the Governor, interpreted by bass-baritone Spencer Dodd, who will agree to Isabella’s request if Isabella will spend a night with him. We also have Mariana, soprano Aléxa Anderson, who as Friedrich’s estranged wife becomes a stand-in for Isabella; Luzio, sung by tenor Michael Dailey, who cheers Isabella on for his own prurient purposes; Dorella, mezzo soprano Sonia Gariaeff, who flaunts her own personal lustiness; Viceroy, Brighella, sung by baritone Michael Grammer, who sets Friedrich’s ban in motion and is the butt of several of their reactions.

The result of the music and the mayhem? All disguises come undone, Mariana the wife is no longer estranged from her husband once his vice has been is exposed, Claudio is liberated from a death decree. Meanwhile Isabella frees herself from her cloister to love darling Luzio. It is a romp freshly conceived by Wagner himself aiming to weigh in on a long-standing contretemps, a youthful version of his life’s work central heart and hearth.

Bright, Lively, Energetic

The singing was overall bright, lively and energetic, clearly expressing and supporting the thematic concerns, and consistent with the characteristic opera presentations of the day. While more reflective of what was of the time than his later work would be, Wagner’s originality in this opera resides with his particular hybrid treatment of the subject, some original probing of the psyche, viz. Friedrich, Mariana, Isabella, and some independent musical textures.

As Isabella, Sandefur’s Act one plea was poignant and compelling, although the very top of her register suffered from occasional shrillness and too much effort. Furthermore, the endings of her words and notes frequently lacked sostenuto and consequent coherence. She aimed to convey meaning and idea rather than elaborating the feeling embedded in the words with the rich beauty her voice contains. As the opera progressed, however, she lessened that intention and conveyed more lyrical and satisfying legato and expression of feeling.

Anderson, in her opening duet with Isabella, evinced  strain and the volume of sound of the two together (was it the acoustics in the Hillside Club?) became shrill and a bit loud. Her thoughtful attention to the meaning of her lament, however, coupled with lovely lines of Wagner’s melody and harmonic texture, gradually grew moving. In the second act, Anderson showed even more of this attention and her voice communicated more of its flexibility in a rainbow of emotions and color.

Gariaeff, as Dorella, sang and performed with great ease, and with natural stage aplomb. She carried the comedy with lightness and charm. From mugging and romping, flirting, fawning, dancing and prancing, much as an operetta gamine, she expressed the liveliness the opera aims for. Her well-executed facial expression and physical movement strengthened her performance.

Three central male singers captured the darker puritanical themes with their resonance and power. We had Brighella in Priestly garb, sung by Grammer with energy, vigor, clear diction, and variety. We had Friedrich himself, sung by Dodd, in a performance striking in its vocal and emotional range, albeit variable. Dodd aimed high and in his long Act two aria took command, center stage, giving  the anti-love, anti-life, anti-nature view he turned into law a thoughtful rendition. As a soliloquy, his aria gave his internal conflict a sinuous and naturalistic turn.

Of main tenor performances sung in the heroic vein, Brunette as Claudio, brought a quasi-Donizetti, plaintive lover style to life, complete with stone bench in the moonlight. As Luzio, Dailey’s lively performance as actor and singer, brought the advocacy for love to life. Dailey pranced and danced and sang with vitality and gusto. A lively at-home-on-the-stage performer, his joie-de-vivre did much to keep the pace of the music alive and rich. His flexibility of face and body movement brought the layers of the story to the surface.

The Ensemble complete with lovely voices and upbeat action, kept the production flowing both musically and visually. The Ensemble also helped with the scenic shifts  all of which were done with ease and grace – lights, signs, church pews, etc. – all carried out unobtrusively and appropriately. The coordination of these shifts with the most effective use of Supertitles was especially welcome. The translation by Donald Pippin was, especially with the use of modern colloquialisms, helpful in keeping the story contemporary and relevant. Costumes, props and lights kept the visual components aesthetically pleasing. In these ways, Pocket Opera delivered a clearly professional performance.

While the dramatized vignettes of the plot to come were interspersed on stage during the Overture, their lack of continuity and coherence seemed an unnecessary distraction. Let it be, we might say, why not let the music speak for itself, and wait for Act one to set the downbeat?

Jonathan Khuner and the Pocket Philharmonic did, however, a good job for Wagner’s youthful and derivative score. The 10 instrumentalists, tucked in stage right and in the audience, which made for a more effective design than the onstage piano of earlier performances. It did, however, interfere at times when singers looked over to the corner when they needed too. Over all Khuner kept the music crisp, energetic and ardent, despite a somewhat indistinct and muddy overture. Use of bells and castenets contrasted nicely with the winds, strings, and other percussion. It hardly seemed more in the French style than the later Wagnerian fare. Khuner himself played the piano as well as conducted.

Would Wagner welcome Pocket Opera’s performance, all these years later? Particularly since its initial ones were poorly received and then canceled? The man who wrote the glorious “Parsifal” might look with disdain on his earlier effort, but if he were a loving man, he would forgive the less mature work for its lively rhythmic shifts, the instrumental color, its luminous shifts from one mood to another, his lyrical motifs – forerunner to leitmotifs – its rich array of character portrayal and thematic exploration. Surely he could enjoy the performance. He could surely give himself a big pat on the back for plunging into its complexities and putting a check mark on the list of accomplishments for 19th century musicianship and the forerunner of the comic masterpiece he wrote in years later (“Die Meistersinger”).

No question today’s production was something the audience thoroughly enjoyed.


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