BLO's "Love Potion" or "Vin Herbe": Herbal Tease

The Greek Chorus in "The Love Potion"
(photo: Boston Lyric Opera)

Boston Lyric Opera’s current production of “Le Vin Herbé, translated as “The Love Potion”, is a bit of a tease; it’s not that more famous elixir. This work, by Frank Martin, centering on the romantic story of Tristan and Isolt (yes, the same coupling from yet another opera), is more obscure. As part of its Opera Annex program, BLO is continuing its policy of presenting both the more familiar and the less, as it follows its recent “Traviata” with this arcane work. It’s being given its fully staged Boston premiere in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the Swiss composer’s death. Based on the novel by Joseph Bédier written in 1900, “Roman de Tristan et Iseult”, (in turn based on a tale that dates back to the time of Arthur and his Guinevere, and even before that), it was previously performed in this area in a concert version in 1990 by the John Oliver Chorale. This production is being performed in a new translation by Hugh MacDonald (commissioned by the BLO) accompanied by the eight-member BLO Chamber Ensemble (seven strings and a piano). Continuing the company’s dedication to offering operatic works that are “not readily available…in evocative venues”, the performances are held in Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline. Also true to its other aim of extending opportunities for local talent to shine, ten out of the twelve singers are either current members or alumni of BLO’s fine Emerging Artists Program. The opera is in three parts with a total of eighteen scenes, clocking in at just under two intermission-less hours.

The story is that of the medieval princess Isolt (soprano Chelsea Basler), cursed as most such damsels seem to be with the dilemma of choosing between her duty and her love, in this case for Tristan (Jon Jurgens). Her mother (Heather Gallagher) gives the titular potion to Brangain (Michelle Trainor) for Isolt to use on her betrothed, King Mark (David McFerrin), but it falls into the hands of a maid who, thinking it wine, pours for Isolt and the king’s nephew Tristan, whose previous animosity for one another turns instantly to love (as these things do). The king, on learning of their love, condemns them to death but hasn’t the heart to execute it when he discovers them asleep and apart. Tristan, with a heavy dose of guilt, wanders away and giving up hope for Isolt marries another, Isolt of the White Hands (Rachel Hauge, apparently sharing a popular given name of the time), daughter of Duke Hoël (David Cushing). Later, mortally wounded in battle, Tristan sends his friend Kahedin (Omar Najmi) to bring his true love Isolt to him, furling white sails if successful, black if not. Isolt of the White Hands hears this, and later falsely tells Tristan that the ship is returning with black sails. He dies in grief, but our heroine does arrive, lies down beside him and joins him in death. Buried by King Mark in adjacent tombs, a living green branch miraculously grows out of Tristan’s tomb into Isolt’s (which continues to regenerate even as attempts are made to sever it) uniting them eternally.

As Joshua Rosenblum wrote in his article “The Other Tristan” about Martin’s “Le Vin Herbéin a recent issue of Opera News, Martin felt he had all the right in the world to approach this story from his own view and with music of his own time, especially with respect to the lushness of his harmonies. This work is more oratorio than opera, and thus by its very nature subject to a certain sameness, with the bulk of the story narrated not by the principals but by the chorus. In the roles of the lovers, Balsen and Jurgens were tremendously moving, as was the outstanding Trainor. The rest of the chorus, every one of them individually audible when making the rounds of the circular stage, were wonderful, including Yvon (Mara Bonde), Treasa (Tania Mandzy Inala), Denolenn (Brad Raymond) and Andret (David Wadden). Conductor David Angus led the chamber ensemble exquisitely, with a thrilling Set Design by Jim Noone, muted Costume Design by Nancy Leary, astounding Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel and Wig and Makeup Design by Jason Allen. But the star of the opera was unquestionably Stage Director David Schweizer, who made what could easily have become a very static work into a living, vibrant whole with ingenious and breathtakingly mysterious stagecraft.

The intriguing question before the performance began was just how wise a choice the venue would prove to be. The huge domed sanctuary could easily have become an acoustical nightmare with notes flying up to the celestial heights never to be heard again. Not to worry. A series of baffles undoubtedly helped contain them, and the presence of a crystalline central piece of the set design kept singers from being in the one spot where voices went dead or reverberated depending on whether a performer was facing toward or away from a segment of the audience. In the end, it succeeded as a resonant playing space in several senses of the term: an insert in the program, referencing the recent attack on renowned local Rabbi Mosheh Twersky in Jerusalem, served as a reminder of the significance of the use of the site as an exaltation of “the unifying force of the human spirit” through the arts and in particular through this performance of “The Love Potion”.

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