Das Liebesverbot: Performance History

First performance: 29 March 1836, Stadttheater, Magdeburg (as Die Novize von Palermo)


First performance in:

Most descriptions of the first performance of Das Liebesverbot derive directly or indirectly from Wagner's personal reminiscence of three decades later in Mein Leben, however accurate or inaccurate it may be. Here is that account:

In spite of royal support and the participation of the theatre committee in the general management of the theatre, our worthy director's state of perennial bankruptcy suffered no alteration, and it seemed as if his theatrical undertaking could not possibly last much longer in any form. Nevertheless, with the help of the really first-rate company of singers at my disposal, the production of my opera was to mark a complete change in my unsatisfactory circumstances. With the view of recovering the travelling expenses I had incurred during the previous summer, I was entitled to a benefit performance. I naturally fixed this for the presentation of my own work, and did my utmost so that this favour granted me by the directors should prove as inexpensive to them as possible. As they would nevertheless be compelled to incur some expense in the production of the new opera, I agreed that the proceeds of the first presentation should be left to them, while I should claim only those of the second. I did not consider it altogether unsatisfactory that the time for the rehearsals was postponed until the very end of the season, for it was reasonable to suppose that our company, which was often greeted with unusual applause, would receive special attention and favour from the public during its concluding performances. Unfortunately, however, contrary to our expectations, we never reached the proper close of this season, which had been fixed for the end of April; for already in March, owing to irregularity in the payment of salaries, the most popular members of the company, having found better employment elsewhere, tendered their resignations to the management, and the director, who was unable to raise the necessary cash, was compelled to bow to the inevitable. Now, indeed, my spirits sank, for it seemed more than doubtful whether my Liebesverbot would ever be produced at all. I owed it entirely to the warm affection felt for me personally by all members of the opera company, that the singers consented not only to remain until the end of March, but also to undertake the toil of studying and rehearsing my opera, a task which, considering the very limited time, promised to be extremely arduous. In the event of our having to give two representations, the time at our disposal was so very short that, for all the reheharsals, we had but ten days before us. And since we were concerned not with a light comedy or farce, but with a grand opera, and one which, in spite of the trifling character of its music contained numerous and powerful concerted passages, the undertaking might have been regarded almost as foolhardy. Nevertheless, I built my hopes upon the extraordinary exertions which the singers so willingly made in order to please me; for they studied continuously, morning, noon, and night. But seeing that, in spite of all this, it was quite impossible to attain to perfection, especially in the matter of words, in the case of every one of these harassed performers, I reckoned further on my own acquired skill as conductor to achieve the final miracle of success. The peculiar ability I possessed of helping the singers and of making them, in spite of much uncertainty, seem to flow smoothly onwards, was clearly demonstrated in our orchestral rehearsals, in which, by dint of constant prompting, loud singing with the performers and vigorous directions as to necessary action, I got the whole thing to run so easily that it seemed quite possible that the performance might be a reasonable success after all. Unfortunately we did not consider that in front of the public all these drastic methods of moving the dramatic and musical machinery would be restricted to the movements of my baton and to my facial expression. As a matter of fact the singers, and especially the men, were so extraordinarily uncertain that from the beginning to end their embarrassment crippled the effectiveness of every one of their parts. Freimüller, the tenor, whose memory was most defective, sought to patch up the lively and emotional character of his badly learned rôle of the madcap Luzio by means of routine work learned in Fra Diavolo and Zampa, and especially by the aid of an enormously thick, brightly coloured and fluttering plume of feathers. Consequently, as the directors failed to have the book of words printed in time, it was impossible to blame the public for being in doubt as to the main outlines of the story, seeing that they had only the sung words to guide them. With the exception of a few portions played by the lady singers, which were favourably received, the whole performance, which I had made to depend largely upon bold, energetic action and speech, remained but a musical shadow-play, to which the orchestra contributed its own inexplicable effusions, sometimes with exaggerated noise.

This was to prove the last performance of Das Liebesverbot for almost a century. What of the projected second performance, which was to pay the composer? Wagner continues:

Strange to say, I suffered nothing from the suspicious nature of the libretto of my opera on the occasion of its production in Magdeburg; for, as I have said, thanks to the unintelligible manner in which it was produced, the story remained a complete mystery to the public. This circumstance, and the fact that no opposition had been raised on the ground of its tendency, made a second performance possible, and as nobody seemed to care one way or the other, no objections were raised. Feeling sure that my opera had made no impression, and had left the public completely undecided about its merits, I reckoned that, in view of this being the farewell performance of our opera company, we should have good, not to say large, takings. Consequently I did not hesitate to charge `full' prices for admittance. I cannot rightly judge whether, up to the commencement of the overture, any people had taken their places in the auditorium; but a quarter of an hour before the time fixed for beginning, I saw only Mme. Gottschalk and her husband, and, curiously enough, a Polish Jew in full dress, seated in the stalls. Despite this, I was still hoping for an increase in the audience, when suddenly the most incredible commotion occurred behind the scenes. Herr Pollert, the husband of my prima donna (who was acting Isabella), was assaulting Schreiber, the second tenor, a very young and handsome man taking the part of Claudio, and against whom the injured husband had for some time been nursing a secret rancour born of jealousy. It appeared that the singer's husband, who had surveyed the theatre from behind the dropcloth with me, had satisfied himself as to the style of the audience, and decided that the longed-for hour was at hand when, without injuring the operatic enterprise, he could wreak vengeance on his wife's lover. Claudio was so severely used by him that the unfortunate fellow had to seek refuge in the dressing-room, his face covered with blood. Isabella was told of this, and rushed despairingly to her raging spouse, only to be so soundly cuffed by him that she went into convulsions. The confusion that ensued amongst the company soon knew no bounds: they took sides in the quarrel, and little was wanting for it to turn into a general fight, as everybody seemed to regard this unhappy evening as particularly favourable for the paying off of any old scores and supposed insults. This much was clear, that the couple suffering from the effects of Herr Pollert's conjugal resentment were unfit to appear that evening. The manager was sent before the drop-scene to inform the small and strangely assorted audience gathered in the theatre that, owing to unforeseen circumstances, the representaion would not take place.

A few notes of explanation: the perennially bankrupt ``worthy director'' to whom Wagner refers is Heinrich Bethmann, proprietor of a traveling theatre company based in Magdeburg with which Wagner had been engaged since July, 1834. The company actually did go bankrupt immediately after the disastrous production of Das Liebesverbot. The first production was originally scheduled for Sunday, March 27th, and as late as March 26th Wagner believed that would be the opening date, as evidenced in a letter to his friend Theodor Apel. The title Die Novizen von Palermo was given by the censorship, Das Liebesverbot being felt inappropriate for a work to be given during Holy Week. (Wagner's conclusion that the censors had not actually read the libretto seems eminently likely!) The failure to print the libretto for the performance was presumably connected with the company's inability to pay its creditors; Wagner fails to mention that the orchestral parts were withheld by the copyist, and only secured at the last minute by his fiancée Minna Planer, who sold a bracelet to pay for them. Mme. Gottschalk was a Jewish lady to whom Wagner was indebted for having recently payed off a large number of his creditors. Herr Schreiber, the illicit lover of his stage sister Caroline Pollert, had previously had an affair with a sister of Minna Planer's (a real sister, not the illegitimate daughter whom Minna passed off as one). Readers unfamiliar with Wagner's prose works and particularly his autobiography should be warned that the accuracy of his recollections and portrayals of himself and those people with whom he was personally, artistically, or financially involved is sometimes a matter of conjecture.

[ Opera Information Page | Composer Page | OperaGlass Main Page ]

Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:40:42 PST