When students of the Thornton Opera Program and the Thornton Chamber Orchestra jointly present their rendition of Richard Wagner’s comedic opera Das Liebesverbot tonight at Bing Theatre, it will represent a victory not only for the university’s music school but for the entire West Coast. Tonight’s Visions and Voices event will be the premiere production of the opera on the West Coast and only the second staging in North America.
Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot — whose name translates to The Ban on Love — tells the story of a struggle between a prudish Lutheran from Germany and the passionate Catholics of Italy. The German composer uses his opera to comment on the advantages and disadvantages of yielding to the callings of an untamed heart rather then blindly following laws and the dictates of authorities.
Set in Sicily, the opera opens when a king leaves for Naples and appoints his trusted right-hand man, Friedrich, to take over during his absence. Friedrich uses his new power to create social reform by banishing carnivals, drinking, laughter and love — he even condemns a man named Claudio to death for impregnating his lover.
Claudio knows that his only chance of a pardon is to convince his clever sister Isabella, who lives in a convent, to plead his case in front of Friedrich. Isabella’s powers of persuasion work perhaps too well when Friedrich, overcome with passion, succumbs to lust and trades Claudio’s release for a night with Isabella.
To expose Friedrich’s hypocrisy, Isabella agrees to the exchange and plans to trap him by sending Mariana, his secret ex-wife and fellow sister at the convent, in her place. Isabella reunites Friedrich with his wife, softens his heart to love, saves her brother and restores love and beauty into the world.
The opera’s convoluted plot, inspired by Shakespeare’s early 17th century comedy Measure for Measure, is typical of Wagner’s style. The composer’s works are often lofty, melodramatic and lengthy, and in every sense Das Liebesverbot is no exception.
Despite Wagner’s characteristic grandiosity, however, the USC Thornton School of Music Opera Program does an excellent job of making the production relatable and entertaining.
With the help of immensely talented professionals — led by stage director Ken Cazan — working behind the scenes, the set transforms from a brothel, to a dungeon, to a courtroom and then magically blossoms into a monastery. Impeccably well-planned lighting facilitates the many transformations, ensuring that — although simplistic — the production is up to USC’s standard.
But as should be the case with opera, the voices stand above all else. Isabella, played by Alex Loutsion, a graduate student studying music performance, soars above the rest with a graceful, flawlessly powerful voice that fully embodies the balance between love and decadence.
The complexity of Loutsion’s singing sets a standard for the entire opera. She is able to sing with the passionate pleading of a nun and still hint at the purity that guides her. Her presence commands respect, and her talent warrants it.
Yet as much as Loutsion deserves the praise befitting a prima donna, there is simply too much talent on the stage for her to be singled out as the show’s only powerhouse. From the random character in the corner to the male lead, Friedrich — who was played by Kyung-Teak Lim, also a graduate student studying music performance — each performer exemplifies commitment and excellence to his singing and acting. These performers prove that opera, which has a history of neglecting the sensibilities of theatrical acting, can retain the emotion of theater while staying true to operatic art.
In the role of Police Chief Brighella, Federico Flores steals the stage with his performance in Act I Scene 3. Dorella, played by Sophie Wingland, a graduate student studying vocal performance, seduces Brighella, and with just the right amount of cheesiness, Brighella transforms from judge to helplessly lustful fool.
Even tavern junkie Pontio Pilato, played by Jeongmin Wee, a graduate student studying music performance, defies operatic conventions as he runs around the stage with his funky mannerisms and hilarious imitations.
But don’t let the acting fool you; as impressive as the production’s staging, acting, lighting, scenery and sheer entertainment value are, the quality of the opera begins and ends with the voice.
Opera is not Hollywood, and Ken Cazan, the resident staging director, makes sure to emphasize that by refusing to typecast. Claudio is played by Asian actor YuJoong Kim, for instance, while his sister Isabella is portrayed by an actress with Greek heritage.
The only important thing is that their voices match, and they certainly do. The kinship is clear in their harmonies, and there is tangible brotherly love in how Kim’s voice supports Loutsion’s.
It is this reliance on vocal excellence that testifies to the professionalism of the university’s opera program. The talented students’ ability to not only maintain a standard of opera but also build upon it with realistic acting and seamless staging makes tonight’s Vision and Voices event a must-see.