A Compelling Staging of Le Vin Herbé a Rarely-Seen Frank Martin Opera

GermanyGermany Martin, Le Vin Herbé: Staatskapelle Berlin, Friedemann Layer (conductor), Staatsoper im Schiller Theatre, Berlin, 19.2.2016. (JMI)

Le Vin Herbé in Berlin © Hermann & Clärchen Baus

Martin, Le Vin Herbé

Production: Berlin Staatsoper

Direction: Katie Mitchell
Sets and Costumes: Lizzie Clachan
Lighting: James Farncombe


Tristan: Marcel Reijans
Iseut: Anna Prohaska
Branghien: Adriene Queiroz
King Marc: Ludwig Lindström
Iseut of the White Hands: Virpi Räisänen
Iseut’s Mother: Katharina Kammerloher
Duc Hoël: Artur Grywatzik
Soprano : Narine Yeghiyan
Mezzo soprano: Stephanie Atanasov
Tenor: Stephen Chamber
Tenor: Michael Smallwood
Bass: Arttu Kataja

The Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) is not all that well-known and wrote just this one opera. It originated in his reaction to the fact that the Nazis took over the figure of Richard Wagner as theirs, and he composed the opera in the 1930s, first as a short essay and then expanded it to the work we know today. The libretto, based on Tristan et Iseut by Joseph Bedier, differs from Wagner’s opera.

The opera consists of three parts, the first of which covers the journey of Tristan and Iseut to Cornwall and closely follows the traditional storyline. However, the magic potion is not given by Branghien but by a waiter who mistakenly pours it into wine glasses (hence the title). In Act II we witness the marriage of King Marc and Iseut, who then flees with her beloved Tristan to the forest, where they have a happy though hard life. King Marc surprises them, and he forgives them, but their feelings of guilt cause the loving couple to separate. In Act III Tristan follows the advice of Duke Hoël and agrees to marry Iseut of the White Hands. Wounded in an accident, Tristan calls out to Iseult for help, and she begins a journey by sea to his side. Iseut of the White Hands deceives Tristan, making him believe that his beloved Iseut will not come, which causes Tristan to die. When Iseut does arrive and sees her lover’s corpse, she dies too.

Musically, this is a chamber-music opera, written for seven string instruments and a piano. The music reminds one of Debussy, although it is more monotonous. The opera cannot be considered a masterpiece, but it does get performed here and there.

Katie Mitchell’s production suits the story nicely. It puts twelve singers on stage who, when they are not performing as individual characters, join the others in a sort of Greek chorus that narrates the action. During the prologue we witness the mourning for the dead lovers, and then the opera begins with the development of the plot. It’s done very effectively, with slow and measured movements by the various characters (almost in the manner of a Robert Wilson production). The set is an old mansion and the characters themselves move the simple props for the different scenes.

The musical direction was in the hands of Friedemann Layer, who proved to be very familiar with the work. He has already conducted it in a number of cities, including Lyon and Gelsenkirchen. Under his baton were musicians from the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Tristan was interpreted by Dutch tenor Marcel Reijans, who did a fine job, although his voice is not overly impressive. Much brighter was Iseut, sung by soprano Anna Prohaska, an outstanding actress and singer. Adriane Queiroz offered a well-projected voice in the part of Branghien, but the King Marc of Ludwig Lindström was somewhat modest. Mezzo-soprano Virpi Räisänen was an appealing Isolde of the White Hands, with a serviceable voice. I found Katharina Kammerloher adequate as Iseut’s Mother, but Artur Grywatzik’s Duke Hoël less so. 

Jose M. Irurzun

Leave a Comment