Composer: Franck Martin
Director: Polly Graham
Conductor: James Southall
Reviewer: Emily Pearce
When asked what about opera can put people off, typical answers can range from, ‘It’s too long!’ to, ‘It’s in a different language that I won’t understand’ and ‘It’s people in funny costumes wailing and dying!’. The third comment being somewhat true no matter what you see aside, Polly Graham’s production of Le Vin herbé goes to considerable lengths to turn the clichés associated with opera on their head.
Staged with minimalist design and sung in English, this short, one act opera couldn’t be more different from the more traditional, lush settings of Madame Butterfly and Le Bohème in Welsh National Opera’s ‘Love’s Poisoned Chalice’ season. Many opera-goers will be familiar with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, where the enemies brought together when they mistakenly drink a love potion, but Frank Martin’s intimate opera offers a different take on the famous tale, thought equally tragic and destructive in its climax.
The black-clothed chorus and orchestra are on stage for the entirety, allowing the audience to really feel the mechanics and heartbeat of the production. The chorus play a narrator role, similar to that of a greek tragedy, where soloists become a role for a scene and then are enveloped back into the primary chorus. Polly Graham’s simple staging often uses the chorus as part of the scenery and backdrop – effective, particularly with WNO’s forceful chorus resounding powerfully as one.
Soloists Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as Tristan and Iseult are well matched for one another vocally. Hulcup, in particular, sings with a poignancy and strength that improves throughout the piece, the physically frenzied scenes on the ship as she tries frantically to meet with the dying Tristan being exceptionally moving. Randle could occasionally benefit from a bit more depth in character in his portrayal as Prince Tristan, it can occasionally feel a little impassive, though his clear tone in the quieter moments are some of the most tender of the evening.
Martin’s score is exquisite and lush, though it occasionally feels a little one-tempo – a change of dynamic or tone on occasion would be a welcome break from its unrelenting solemnity. Conversely, one could argue that it is in fact the insistence of intensity throughout that makes the piece so compelling and moving by its climax. James Southall leads WNO’s chamber orchestra with a verve and precision that is hugely refreshing – every moment is carefully considered for maximum impact, creating a commanding presence that builds and builds.
For those that like their opera stark, raw and visceral, Le Vin herbé is an intoxicating, though sombre, evening.
Reviewed on 16 February 2017 then tours until 25 April 2017 | Image: Robert Workman