Boston Lyric Opera’s presentation of Frank Martin’s opera Le Vin Herbé (The Love Potion) is an authentic event. This visually mesmerizing and beautifully performed realization is the first fully-staged production in Boston of a unique achievement by a 20th-century composer whose œuvre is beginning to make inroads in the standard repertoire. It offers local audiences the chance to experience Martin’s distinctive voice complete with a new English translation of the libretto by Hugh MacDonald.
Switzerland’s most prominent composer, Martin lived from 1890 to 1974. Le Vin Herbé was written in the late 1930s and early 1940s and retells the legend of Tristan and Isolt in conscious opposition to Wagner’s behemoth work on the same subject. Given the political situation at the time, this is a gesture of cultural reclamation, taking back an ancient story from the composer who had come to be one of the favorites of National Socialism in Germany. But it is much more obviously an aesthetic reclamation: at every turn, if the work can stand in opposition to Wagner, it does so. For his version of the story Martin relied on Tristan et Iseut, a “philological novel by Joseph Bédier”, according to the program notes. I’m not sure I’ve encountered a philological novel before, but apparently Bédier was a student of the many variations of this story, and fashioned a composite from medieval sources. The simple differences in plot are striking: in Wagner’s story potion that is drunk is a love potion consciously substituted in place of a poison by Isolde’s handmaid Brangäne. In Martin/Bédier’s version, it is an unnamed maid’s mistake, provided when Tristan and Isolt are merely thirsty. There is no backstory between the two lovers-to-be; their love-affliction is unplanned, unschemed, unmotivated, and almost entirely catastrophic. In Le Vin Herbé their love, although erotic in nature, is not consummated, while most of Wagner’s Act II is consummation-by-other-means. Wagner’s Tristan spends much of the opera in a state of near-derangement; Martin’s is consumed by love, but never unaware of the danger to his honor, and the longest solo aria in the piece is dedicated to his thinking through how to regain his status with his king.
Then there are the differences in scale: Martin’s version is only about 100 minutes long with no intermission; his “orchestra” is eight players (string quartet plus additional cello, bass and piano). Most important for this assessment is the music, of course: Wagner’s opera is an elephantine outpouring of suspension and delayed resolution, rich and sumptuous and ravishing, filled with long stretches of individual and duo singing. Martin’s language is tight and, at first hearing, harmonically parsimonious. The surface does not beckon immersion in the sound. While Wagner’s music rushes out at you, Martin’s stands back. Yet if you choose to approach it, you discover music whose pulse beats just below the surface: chromaticism blurs the long lines but does not efface their emotional impact. Sudden diatonic cadences penetrate like shafts of light; subtle rhythmic writing even “swings” at times. Debussy’s Pélleas comes to mind here, where the affect can seem dark and static for long periods unless one actively engages with it.
Much of the story is told in narration by the cast of 11 singing as a chorus; there’s relatively little solo music, and much of it appears in brief episodes of conversation. The moment that best captured the story-telling and emotional mechanics of this piece was the staging of Tristan and Isolt’s first kiss: prepared for briefly and hesitatingly, they embrace, kiss, and then hold in place for minutes, as the ensemble sings around them, describing their experience and what was to follow from it. Ultimately Le Vin Herbé is not about the experience of love, but about the repercussions of an unbidden but blameless attraction. MacDonald’s libretto worked well in the main, comprehensible yet heightened, and only occasionally requiring recourse to the supertitles for clarification. But the English title they have chosen seems out of place: Martin’s French emphasizes not love but the adulterated wine that causes it; his German title, Der Zaubertrank, is less poetic but similar in emphasis. And yet that love exists, and much of the charm of the piece is in the steady, constant devotion of the lovers to one another, a devotion that seems to slow down time as it deepens.
Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline turns out to provide a reasonably pleasant acoustic, although the staging in the round meant that the production sacrificed a consistent beauty of vocal tone for visual impact. At any given time half of the chorus would be facing away; as they moved about the stage, singers would come into or out of focus, creating an effect that was interestingly varied but not what one usually expects. The solo music is generously spread around the room, though from my seat near the orchestra a frustratingly large amount of Isolt’s music was performed with her back to me.
The performances were uniformly excellent. Conductor David Angus and the instrumental ensemble were right next to me so perhaps their clarity and sensitivity were especially easy to hear: every time I turned my attention to them, something interesting could be picked out of the texture. The small singing was superb; the staging allowed one to hear individual voices in the choral numbers, but the overall effect was beautifully blended and the text almost always clearly audible. As far as solo work goes, the piece is Tristan’s more than Isolt’s: tenor Jon Jurgens was asked to be ardent (but never uncontrolled), angry, self-despising, resolved, and every emotion was clearly delineated, the many colors of his voice deployed expertly. Soprano Chelsea Basler had rather less to do as Isolt, singing with a full-bodied serious tone that expressed devotion more than Eros. Michelle Trainor’s Brangain was a force of nature. Martin gives her much music of despair, and Trainor made the most of her brief moments of high drama. David Cushing’s resonant bass and dramatic intensity made his appearance as Duke Hoël unexpectedly memorable, and Rachel Hauge as Isolt of the White Hands gets the one truly evil turn in the entire opera, and makes the most of it.
Brookline (David Schweizer was the Stage Director; James Noone the Set Designer). The singers occupy circular platform whose perforated surface allows light to glow from below in a range of colors, though blue predominates (Robert Wierzel was the light designer). At the center of the circle is a smaller, white glowing circle, filled with clear plastic shapes: a crystalline omphalos. Long copper pipes times evoke a ship, a bower, weapons. Nancy Leary initially costumes all the players long, coarse white robes. As they shed them, we find the women dressed in simple floor-length dresses in pastel ocean blues and greens, simply ornamented with Celtic knots; the men in rustic cloth with occasional subtle signals of status.
Martin’s story subtly moves where Wagner’s devastates. Wagner ends his story with Isolde’s death, but Martin adds an epilogue telling how nature embodies the connection between the lovers after their death. The actors engaged viscerally, using gestures that have evoked something between caress and reassurance. The ambivalent ending is a welcome balm, a suddenly personal and intimate depiction of love which caught this reviewer by surprise and lingered in his memory for some time.