Boston Lyric Opera’s Opera Annex will present the Boston premiere of a fully staged version of composer Frank Martin’s retelling of the legendary story of Tristan and Isolt, Le vin herbé (The Love Potion) in a new English translation. In keeping with the Annex’s habit of presenting in unusual venues, the immersive, intimate staging comes to Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline November 19 – 23.
The work sets the medieval tale of the fateful love potion that binds the knight Tristan to Isolt, the princess torn between duty and love. Praised for her luminous voice, Boston favorite soprano Chelsea Basler returns in the unforgettable role in a new production directed by David Schweizer (The Emperor of Atlantis).
BMInt had an email conversation with Ryan Turner, Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music, and tenor and conductor about town about his debut conducting with BLO.
Le vin herbé (The Love Potion) is not exactly an opera or an oratorio—what is it? And how do you pronounce the name of the composer, Frank Martin?
A secular oratorio, and Frahnnck Mahrtænn
Based on a 1990 retelling of the 12th-century tales, Le roman de Tristan et Iseut, by Joseph Bédier, it has nothing to do with Wagner, though both were treating earlier sources. Is there some appropriateness to depicting medieval myths in a warmer version of Schoenberg’s language rather than in Wagner’s more sumptuous style? And of course Martin required 12 singers, 7 string instruments, and a piano rather than massive orchestral forces.
The simplicity of instrumentation coupled with the directness of Martin’s musical vocabulary provides an immediacy to the telling of the story. The transparency of the texture and economy of exposition enable the text and emotions to ride closer to the surface.
Is the translation BLO commissioned from Hugh Macdonald in part taken from the earlier English translation by Hilaire Belloc?
It is a newly commissioned translation of the original text set by Martin.
At roughly the time Opera Annex is producing The Love Potion at a synagogue, Boston Camerata will be offering the 13th-century Play of Daniel at Trinity Church. Are there advantages to presenting these ancient stories in religious settings?
The Love Potion draws from the religious origins of the Greek Chorus, where all the players are essentially ensemble members who move seamlessly to and from the ensemble for their solo roles.This is a work that, in a way, blurs the line between secular and sacred as it comments on the subject of eternal love: “a spiritual journey that doesn’t end with death, but continues throughout the otherworldly dimension.” There is something mystical about the ritual of re-telling the Tristan and Isolt story and illuminating it in a sacred space, without being specifically religious.
How will Temple Ohabei Shalom be arranged for this production, and is there a lot of action? How will sightlines be? The acoustics?
The BLO production team and artistic staff has done superbly creative work transforming the Temple Ohabei Shalom into a theatrical space. The performance will essentially be in a 3/4 round, with the orchestra filling out the remaining 1/4. It has been staged to enable acoustical and visual ease for all the audience regardless of seating. In addition, working with an acoustician, acoustic panels have been installed to enhance the sonic experience. Another interesting point is that the opera is performed without intermission and all the singers are on stage for entire performance.
What’s it been like to rehearse BLO’s singers and players?
This is a first rate ensemble of singers. At some point during the opera, all are both soloists and choral ensemble singers. The ease and skill at which they execute the transition in and out of those vastly different roles is impressive. And, I must say that collaborating with David Angus, the BLO music director, on this piece has been most gratifying, supportive and stimulating.
You told me earlier that you are particularly enamored of the Martin. And I know that you are a singer as well as an opera conductor—your performances of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby were very well received, and your week-to-week activities with Emmanuel Music, despite your focus on Bach, prepare you for virtually anything. How did you connect with BLO for this production?
Very shortly after Emmanuel Music’s Jordan Hall performance of Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, I was contacted by management at BLO inquiring about my interest and availability in working with them during this interval. As a singer and ardent admirer of anything staged, I have always had a deep affinity for opera. Emmanuel Music typically mounts one concert opera performance per year, sometimes semi-staged as in our recent production of A Little Night Music. The invitation to work with BLO on a staged production of this ravishingly gorgeous 12-tone work was an honor and has proved to be thrilling.
Do you have more opera in your conducting future?
Let’s hope so! The inherent dynamic, even mercurial nature of live opera is incredibly exciting to me. I have a Mozart Abduction coming up, some intriguing ideas for Emmanuel Music, and perhaps some Philip Glass on the horizon!
See related reivew here.
Performed at Temple Ohabei Shalom, 1187 Beacon Street, Brookline, November 19-23
Music by Frank Martin
Based on Joseph Bédier’s Roman de Tristan et Iseut
New English translation by Hugh Macdonald commissioned by BLO
Conductor: David Angus (Ryan Turner Nov. 22)
Stage Director: David Schweizer
Set Designer: James Noone
Costume Designer: Nancy Leary
Lighting Designer: Robert Wierzel
Wigs and Makeup Designer Jason Allen
Tristan Jon Jurgens#
Isolt, the Fair Chelsea Basler#
Brangain Michelle Trainor^
King Mark David McFerrin^
Isolt’s Mother: Heather Gallagher#*
Isolt of the White Hands: Rachel Hauge#
Kahedin: Omar Najmi#
King Hoël: David Cushing^
Yvon: Mara Bonde
Treasa: Tania Mandzy Inala*
Denolenn: Brad Raymond*#
Andret: David Wadden#
Rehearsal Coach/Accompanist: Brett Hodgdon^
Associate Conductor: Ryan Turner*
Assistant Director: R.B. Schlather#
Production Stage Manager: Chelsea Antrim
Chamber Ensemble from the Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra