BLO serves up a poignant, captivating performance of Frank Martin rarity
Richard Wagner didn’t have the last word on the Tristan legend, as the Boston Lyric Opera made amply clear on Wednesday night.
BLO’ production of Frank Martin’s mesmerizing Le vin herbé (presented in translation rather less poetically as The Love Potion) made a powerful case for the Swiss composer’s conception of the legend. The Love Potion, staged in Temple Ohabei Shalom, is much closer in spirit to Britten’s chamber operas and ancient Greek tragedies than operas in the traditional sense. The BLO plumbed these associations Wednesday night to produce a poignant and otherworldly performance.
The Love Potion hews more closely to its medieval sources than Wagner’s version. In Martin’s opera, the love potion alone engenders the forbidden love between Tristan, one of King Mark’s most faithful knights, and Isolt, the king’s bride-to-be. As in Wagner, they are discovered, but instead of being separated, the two lovers flee into the woods where they live, for a time, in happiness.
They return to King Mark’s kingdom, however, after the king stumbles upon them by accident and spares their lives after seeing that they have remained chaste. In this version, the lovers’ guilt prevents consummation of their love, and their gratitude at King Mark’s mercy compels them to give up their romance. It is almost a version of what might happen to Wagner’s lovers if they had survived long enough to endure the real world.
Also in contrast to Wagner and operatic tradition is the size of Martin’s musical forces: a piano, small string ensemble, and 12-person chorus,. As such, instead of a wide palette of timbres, Martin serves up a small toolbox of distinct, repeating textures, creating a fabalistic musical atmosphere.
The emphasis in Martin’s balance is clearly on the voices, and the BLO fielded a wonderful vocal ensemble. Following ancient Greek custom, the principals, unusually, are part of the chorus. Each member, including the principals, therefore had to embody both individuality and anonymity—a balance that the singers struck perfectly, especially in the rich quasi-fugal portions of Martin’s score.
Chelsea Basler was a luminous Isolt. Her ample soprano boasted a bright, warm tone, and was ensheathed with velvet in its upper reaches. Jon Jurgens’s Tristan, while not heroic, was ardent and sang with supple ease.
David McFerrin and David Cushing, who appeared oddly (perhaps intentionally) interchangeable as King Mark and the narrator Duke Hoel, brought a solid baritone and bass, respectively, to their parts. Heather Gallagher made a vivid and convincing character out of the small role of Isolt’s mother, and Michelle Trainor was a properly agonized Brangain.
Rachel Hauge as Isolt of the White Hands made perhaps the only musical misstep of the evening. In an otherwise moving portrayal of the second, slighted Isolt, she declaims rather than sings at a crucial moment of the opera, breaking the spell that had been tightly spun up until then.
As The Love Potion was part of BLO’s Opera Annex productions, whose mission is to stage operas in non-traditional venues, the staging and setting deserve comment. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense to stage an opera about a medieval Christian romance in a synagogue, but the flashing lights embedded in the stage, which resembled a dance platform in an arcade, hardly made sense either. Not that it mattered—the lights were beautiful, and the setting was mystical but human, which was surely the intention of Martin’s opera.
One gets the sense that this is the sort of production and challenge at which the BLO excels—not adding new twists to pieces in the standard repertoire, but opening whole new vistas with more obscure works. In the pit, David Angus conducted with sensitivity and gentle momentum, paying full due to the ostinato-like motifs of Martin’s music.
The Love Potion plays through November 23 at Temple Ohabei Shalom. blo.org
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