WNO Present an Extremely Esoteric Work on their 2017 Tour

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Frank Martin, Le Vin Herbe: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Welsh National Opera / James Southall (conductor). Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno. 4.4.2017. (RJF)

WNO’s Le Vin Herbe (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


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

Since David Pountney has taken over as artistic supremo at Welsh National Opera, the name of the game each season has been a theme for each season. This concept seems to have had less trumpeting this spring season albeit titled Love’s Poisoned Chalice intimating the fatal link of carnal love. However, that proves a very handy title for the three operas on offer in what must have been a very cheap season to mount for WNO. Whether economics was a factor I do not know, but with two of the operas being revivals, and the third using hardly any orchestra, costs must have been much reduced. Perhaps a factor of the two popular Puccini works was influenced by the visit, before the season in Llandudno, to Dubai, an exotic first for any opera company and perhaps some welcome winter sun for the members of the company and soloists who performed there. It must be some kudos to WNO, as I understand they were the first into the new build facility in that rich Emirate.

Composed to a French libretto by Swiss composer Frank Martin the work is a variation of the Tristan and Isolde story, best known from Wagner’s epic work. The story here concentrates more on the travels around the Celtic lands of the lovers who drink a spiked potion and fall in love; their affair, inevitably, leads to tragedy. The music is not melodic, rather facilitating declamatory exposition of the story from the chorus in particular. I imagine learning the whole would be a horrendous task with no melody on which to sit the voice. However, WNO. seem to have covered this problem by utilising the chorus in sections. All dressed in black, they move around the set frequently after their impressive arrival before an open curtain. The orchestra players, seven strings and a concert grand piano pianist, also arrive in similar garb and take their places with the conductor last onto an off-centre front stage podium, making his presence rather distracting at times. Despite such limitations, Polly Graham’s direction was the most impressive part of the evening as she directed the forces to dramatic effect.

The nature of the declamatory music and reduced orchestra allowed for greater clarity of words than we usually get in opera, the titles were an added luxury in following the evolving story. Whilst the chorus members took the laurels, the soloists acted with conviction. As Isolde, Australian mezzo Caitlin Hulcup was formidable as singer and actress. Tom Randle as her suitor struggled with the tessitura from time to time. With Howard Kirk being particularly strong as King Mark I regretted his contribution was not more significant in the evolving story. Whilst conductor James Southall was something of a visual intrusion, his control of proceedings and nuances in the music seemed wholly appropriate.

It is a reflection of the loyalty that WNO. has built up over the seasons at Venue Cymru in Llandudno this was a pleasingly well-attended performance of an unknown and somewhat esoteric work.

Robert J Farr

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