Fine Staging of Frank Martin Oratorio by Staatsoper Berlin

GermanyGermany Frank Martin, Le Vin herbé: Soloists, Members of the Staatskapelle Berlin, Franck Ollu (conductor). Schiller Theater, Berlin, 22.4.2014 (MB)


Le Vin Herbé Photo Courtesy Staatsoper Berlin

Soprano 1 – Narine Yeghiyan
Soprano 2/Iseut la blonde – Anna Prohaska
Soprano 3/Branghien – Evelin Novak
Alto 1/Iseut aux blanches mains – Virpi Räisänen
Alto 2/Iseut mere – Katharina Kammerloher
Alto 3 – Stephanie Atanasov
Tenor 1 – Thorbjørn Gulbrandsøy
Tenor 2/Tristan – Matthias Klink
Tenor 3/Kaherdin – Peter Gijsbertsen
Bass 1 – Arttu Kataja
Bass 2/Le Roi Marc – Ludvig Lindström
Bass 3/Le Duc Höel – Jan Martiník


Katie Mitchell (director)
Joseph W Alford (co-director)
Lizzie Clachan (designs)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Katharina Winkler (dramaturgy)


Premiered in May last year, Katie Mitchell’s production of Frank Martin’s oratorio, Le Vin herbé is now revived in fine form by the Berlin State Opera. Mitchell’s tendency towards one-size-fits-all suits some works better than others, but is in any case more restrained here. One perhaps also has greater liberty – or at least greater immunity from werktreu charges of desecration – in staging an oratorio anyway. Interestingly, the first staging took place as early as 1948 – at the Salzburg Festival under Ferenc Fricsay, no less, only six years after the Zurich Madrigal Choir gave the first performance of the completed version (the first part having been performed by the same choir two years earlier than that). Mitchell’s approach is metatheatrical, as one would expect, but without the paraphernalia of cameras and so forth; rather, we see a dramatisation of, if not the first performance, then a performance recognisably of that time. Rituals create themselves, gain impetus, both from the performers’ behaviour and the props provided: notably a table and a bed. There is more than a scent of Brecht – no bad thing, especially in Berlin. Clearly the performers have been well-choreographed, but they also give the impression of being those performers performing, not just of doing what they have been told. It is a fine production, which other companies and venues would do well to consider taking up. ENO or the Barbican perhaps?

The work itself is alluring, typical of what I know of the composer in its epitomising Webern’s summarising twelve-note composition as involving imbibing of the method and then composing as before. Frankly tonal, and yet so clearly, so rigorously organised, its roots lie as much in, say, Pelléas as Tristan, despite the use on occasion of quotation and the inevitable comparisons any composer, or indeed artist, will now meet when daring to treat with this legend.  Yes, it comes from Joseph Bédier’s novel, Tristan et Iseut, but facts are no refuge from the overpowering Rausch of Tristan; it is to Martin’s great credit that he is not overpowered – far from it – without self-conscious distancing. Much of Tristan is, of course, chamber music, whatever ‘popular opinion’ will tell you; here, the ensemble is of true chamber proportions: twelve voices, two violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass, and piano. Some of that Second Viennese School sound arises – I could not help but think of Schoenberg’s wonderful Weihnachtssmusik – but that more betokens correspondence, if not quite coincidence, than anything stronger. It is a true oratorio, too, with roots in a great tradition but, again, not overwhelmed by it. Narrative works on its own terms, rather than as that of an opera manqué.

Franck Ollu conducted the excellent soloists (Wolfram Brandl, Yunna Shevchenko, Boris Bardenhagen, Nikolaus Janhjohr-Popa, Mathias Winkler, Frank-Immo Zichner) from the Staatskapelle Berlin. He seemed to me to do a very good job, sensitive to music, to drama, to the way the two combine and keep their distance (especially in a production such as this). But in a performance such as this, the element of chamber music is at least as important, and here the Berlin orchestra’s long tradition, aided and abetted by Daniel Barenboim, of subdivision into chamber ensembles, truly paid off. The singers impressed too, though perhaps a little more of Martin’s quasi-madrigalian intent might have been communicated at times. The intent was worlds away, of course, from today’s early-music world, but a hint or two of something akin to Nadia Boulanger’s singers – their Monteverdi still rules at least a certain roost – would have bound them together more closely. Anna Prohaska shone as Iseut, her voice revealing considerable deepness as well as purity of tone.  Matthas Klink made for an ardent yet sensitive Tristan. Ludvig Lindström exhibited a degree of malevolence which, in terms of psychological realism, is perhaps more credible, certainly more usual, than that we associate with Wagner’s King Mark. This was yet another feather, then, in the Staatsoper’s cap.

Mark Berry

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