A Very Different ‘Tristan’ Provides Real, if Un-Wagnerian Pleasures: WNO’s Le Vin herbé

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Frank Martin, Le Vin herbé: (Company Production Premiere) Soloists, Chorus and Musicians of Welsh National Opera / James Southall (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 16.2.2017. (GPu)

Caitlin Hulcup (Iseult the Fair) & Tom Randle (Tristan) (c) Robert Workman

Iseult the Fair – Caitlin Hilcup
Tristan – Tom Randle
Iseult’s Mother – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Brangain – Rosie Hay
King Mark – Howard Kirk
Duke Hoël – Stephen Wells
Iseult of the White Hands – Sian Meinir
Kaherdin – Gareth Dafydd Morris

Conductor – James Southall
Director – Polly Graham
Designer – April Dalton
Lighting Designer – Tim Mitchell
Movement Director – Jo Fong

Here’s a genuine rarity. However, unlike many artistic rarities, it has far more to offer than mere scarcity value. It is, in fact, a substantial and rewarding piece of music, a fine work by a composer still widely underappreciated. Originally written as an oratorio and so designated by its composer, at first examination Le Vin herbé doesn’t obviously or simply lend itself to being staged in the opera house. By now, of course, the ‘translation’ of oratorios into ‘operas’ has become relatively commonplace – to take examples only from a single, admittedly the greatest, composer of oratorios, one remembers fully-staged versions of, for instance, Saul, Semele and Jephtha. It feels as if Le Vin herbé has been seen and heard in the opera house at least as often than Martin’s two ‘true’ operas Der Sturm and Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. Le Vin herbé was originally commissioned by the Zurich Madrigal Chorus and Martin’s score calls for 12 singers plus just seven strings and piano. Having been performed as an oratorio, the work was first presented as an opera (under the title Der Zaubertrank) at the Salzburg Festival in August 1948.

It is impossible to say much about Le Vin herbé without mentioning Wagner. Though it would be absurd to think of Martin trying to compete with Tristan und Isolde, the fact remains that Wagner’s great opera constitutes an unavoidable point of reference. In pretty well all respects, the two works can be seen as contrasts. Martin’s Tristan story is succinct, while Wagner’s is expansive; instrumentally-speaking Martin deploys what is essentially a chamber ensemble, Wagner makes powerful use of a large orchestra. Essentially, Martin’s is an austere aesthetic, where Wagner’s aesthetic valorizes excess and grandness of scale. Martin’s music has little or none of that “orgiastic ecstasy” which Wilfrid Mellers identified as one of the hallmarks of Wagner’s writing in Tristan und Isolde. In preparing his German libretto, Wagner’s chief source was the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg (d.c.1210); Martin’s French libretto was based on part of Joseph Bedier’s Roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900), a retelling which went back to sources earlier than Gottfried.

Responding to Martin’s economy of means (though financial considerations may have been relevant too), director Polly Graham adopts an austere production style. There is no attempt at any kind of naturalism; nothing in the staging or design hints at a medieval world. The stage is bare and very few props are used at any point. It is dominated by a metal bridge which spans almost the full width of the stage, with steps at each end; it serves, as need arises, as a ship or a castle. Costumes for the chorus (expanded from Martin’s 12 singers to something like 40) are black in a simple modern-timeless fashion. The only moments of colour (white) belong (ironically) to the doomed lovers.

The instrumental ensemble (and conductor) remain visible on stage throughout. In both musical and ‘theatrical’ terms the chorus is central to Le Vin herbé. They are the narrators, sometimes as a group, sometimes as individuals – they have the opening words and they guide and comment on the action. Of the named characters, all but the two lovers and Tristan’s mother (authoritatively sung by Catherine Wyn Rogers)  were sung (very decently!) by members of the chorus. The widely-acknowledged quality of WNO’s Chorus (oddly, chorus master Alexander Martin wasn’t credited in the programme) may have been one factor in the decision to stage this work.

As the doomed lovers, both Australian mezzo Caitlin Hulcup and the more experienced tenor Tom Randle, were impressive, though not, perhaps in exactly the same way. Hulcup took Martin’s distinctly individual writing in her stride and was consistently beautiful of voice, though her acting was occasionally a little too melodramatic to be entirely appropriate to the restrained style of the production. Tom Randle occasionally struggled vocally at the top end of what he was required to sing, but very much looked the part, and was thoroughly persuasive (insofar as the production style required or allowed) in terms of characterization and psychological plausibility. The result was a relationship which convinced both at the level of the legendary and in terms of human individuality. The fact that the production was sung in English, in Hugh Macdonald’s first-rate libretto, originally prepared for the use of Boston Lyric Opera in 2014, perhaps helped here. Of the other soloists, it was perhaps Howard Kirk’s impressively powerful King Mark that most deserved special mention. James Southall conducted the small ensemble with plenty of well-judged energy and, in addition to  supporting the singers well, had enough understanding of Martin’s idiosyncratic idiom to produce many beautiful and luminous passages.

Indeed, the quality of Martin’s writing shone throughout. The idiom he evolved for this work has its roots both in Debussy (especially the Debussy of Pelléas et Mélisande) and in something of the Stravinsky of, for example, Les Noces or Oedipus Rex. Martin also makes some limited use of serial techniques, but the result is both more cohesive than such a description suggests and essentially French (for all Martin’s Swiss birth) – perhaps purposefully, given the quintessentially German nature of Wagner’s operatic re-telling of essentially the same story. The result is readily accessible, while also having a degree of the detachment appropriate for a narration, rather than a full re-enactment, of a medieval legend.

The onstage ensemble, led by the violin of the outstanding David Adams, was excellent, as were the chorus and the soloists. I found the whole experience both thought-provoking and emotionally rich, though it certainly isn’t (and Martin certainly wouldn’t have wanted it to be) a ‘weepie’ in the manner of La bohème and Madam Butterfly, its partners in the present WNO season, under the general title of ‘Love’s Poisoned Chalice’.

Glyn Pursglove

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