Composer: Frank Martin
English Translation: Hugh Macdonald
Director: Polly Graham
Conductor: James Southall
Reviewer: Kris Hallett
Love’s Poisoned Chalice is the theme of Welsh National Opera’s Spring Season and it doesn’t get much more literal than that in Frank Martin’s take on the love affair of Tristan and Iseult in La Vin Herbé. Here the poison is real, a potion the two consume to fall madly in love may not literally kill them, but is the first step to what can only end up in tragedy.
Wagner created almost the definitive operatic version of the tale with his soaring musical epic so Martin’s decision to head down a different path made sense. It is in truth an oratorio, orchestrated for just seven players, two leading roles and a small host of soloists drafted in from the 23 person chorus. It was surely conceived to be an intimate experience so WNO decision to stage it as part of their main season-in some of the cavernous theatres the tour takes in- is a challenge, one that Polly Graham’s production only partly succeeds in conquering.
Her staging strips everything right back so the back walls are exposed in April Dalton’s industrial like set. She bathes everything in tones of black and white, Iseult garbed head to toe in virginal white, Tristan in dark suit, the chorus head to foot in black. There is something of the undergraduate experiment to the staging, as if having read Meyerhold and Eisenstein’s theories in constructivism she has thrown everything into making them practical. The chorus rarely stop moving throughout, as though Graham realises she has a massive stage to fill and doesn’t fully trust the music to tell its story. At its best, as when the entire chorus curve their bodies together to form two branches that symbolically touch it has a delicate beauty, at other times it can be downright irritating, such as when they all gather to carouse at a party and give the best example of “dad dancing” that you’ll see on a stage this year.
It can make members of the chorus appear a little foolish, a shame as by and large this is their show. They dominate the action as storytellers of the myth, linking the action together, moving into the other roles as the opera sees fit. The singing soars, a thrilling full-throttle sound. As other opera houses slash their chorus to help balance their books if not their art, it is refreshing to see WNO celebrate theirs. They are the true stars of this company.
Not that the only problem is with the staging. Martin’s take is filled with portent gloom from the off. There are ominous rumbles, mournful dirges, this is love at its worst and most destructive and over 110 interval-less minutes can feel a slog. Even when the lovers first fall, there are no lighter notes, no swooping melodies that capture the “walking on air” experience of being truly head over heels in love. It makes for a rather one-dimensional take even if the music composed is highly accomplished.
Tom Randle is heroic of tone and built of frame as the warrior who falls in love with his King’s Queen, while Caitlin Haicup is secure in her top notes and a women of substance, an unbreakable presence at odds with her characters eventual downfall. James Southall conducts his small orchestra from the stage with great sensitivity, a reminder that here the music is key.
Reviewed on 28th March and runs until 25th April 2017 | Image: Robert Workman