OPERA / Wagner's sin: Wexford Festival - Wexford, Ireland

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The Independent Culture
Although the composer of Das Liebesverbot is the best-known of the three featured in this year's Wexford Festival, you could safely bet that few people could identify what Wagner called his 'youthful sin' as the early work of the composer of the Ring and Tristan and Isolde.

Das Liebesverbot ('The Ban on Love') was not, and is not a successful piece.

It is the triumph of Dieter Kaegi's production, with gaudy costumes by Bruno Schwengl, that, through ruthless cutting and guying of the piece, he has turned the prolix 'grand comic opera' into a viable evening's entertainment.

You could raise questions about the Wagnerian inclinations of some of the singers at Wexford. But as a contribution to the overall sense of parody - and we relish the piece's musical and dramatic absurdities all the more, precisely because they are by Wagner - these idiosyncracies only add to what the composer himself regarded as the 'bold tendency to wild sensuous turbulence' and 'defiant joyfulness' of his youthful Italian-sounding rail against restrictive authority.

In short, this Liebesverbot came across as a wonderfully self-indulgent romp with, in Gidon Saks's Brighella, a first- rate panto villain (who completely upstaged the weak Robert Holzer as his master, Friedrich) and a superb foil in the cheeky, streetwise Dorella of Majella Cullagh.

The Finnish mezzo Naurit Sauramo touched a more tender nerve as Mariana, the neglected wife of Friedrich, and in her Act 1 convent duet with Marie Plette's Isabella the duo warbled beautifully as a pair of caged birds. In the pit, Yves Abel and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland kept things moving with unflagging zest and the scantily-clad chorus rollicked and frolicked with an enthusiasm that would have won the youthful Wagner's approval.

In the realm of authentically Italian opera, Wexford this year chose to give a platform to the other La boheme. Leoncavallo's is a skilfully assembled piece (the composer has been very aptly described as 'an acute analyst of market requirements') and the Wexford team of producer Reto Nickler, designer Russell Craig and conductor Albert Rosen, drive through the first two acts with high-pressure energy.

The novelty of an initially unsick Mimi and the greater prominence given to a tenor Marcello and mezzo Musette, not to mention the drawing in of external musical and literary elements, all carry a certain interest. But the music doesn't quite have the strength to bind all these into a really riveting whole.

The most arresting characterisation of this boheme is the ring-masterish Schaunard of Jonathan Veira; Patryk Wroblewski's low-profile Rodolfo is too heavily into denial to make a strong impact, and the hectoring of Jean-Pierre Furlan's Marcello rises to levels that are not easy to take in a small venue.

On the evidence of this performance, one of the major factors in the public's rejection of the piece must be that some of its most persuasive surges of passion are expressed through the strings of the orchestra, while the singers are left mute on the stage.

The biggest disappointment of the festival was the dull Yefim Maizel production of that one-time Chaliapin vehicle, Rubinstein's The Demon. Quite the most memorable contribution to this Demon came from the pit, where Alexander Anissimov and the NSO did Rubinstein proud with their effective half-lights and suggestive shading.

In repertory to 6 Nov (Details: 010-353 53 22144)

Michael Dervan is music critic of the 'Irish Times'