OPERA NEWS - Le Vin Herbé
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Le Vin Herbé

Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

In Review Berlin Vin Herbe hdl 913
Prohaska and Klink, Iseut and Tristan in La Vin Herbé at Staatsoper Berlin
© Hermann & Clärchen Baus 2013

In early June, while Berlin's other two houses were winding down their seasons, Deutsche Staatsoper presented the first of its three summertime premieres with Frank Martin's rarely seen "secular oratorio" Le Vin Herbé in a production by the visionary British director Katie Mitchell (seen June 1).

Martin, a distinctive and unjustly neglected Swiss composer, wrote this 100-minute work in 1941, to a libretto based on Joseph Bédier's Roman de Tristan et Iseut,from 1900. Scored for a string septet, piano and a twelve-person chorus, it is a work of startling economy and emotion. The similarities to Wagner end with Martin's choice of subject matter. The score, a key work for the composer's mature style, shows the influence of serialism, but Martin never abandons the tonal. Martin's self-avowed wish was to become a master of tonal chromaticism, and in Le Vin Herbé, he succeeded in concocting a harmonically dense potion that, for all its dissonances, also goes down easy. While comparatively thin (one could claim, with some justice, to a fault) on melodic invention, the music derives much of its power from the plaintive Debussy-influenced parlando (Martin seems to have had Pelléas very much on the brain) and the pedal tones, counterpoint, insistently repeated progressions and polyphony that give the piece an air of the sacred and medieval. The music unfurls with a hypnotic, often chant-like urgency. This arresting score was exquisitely served by director Mitchell and the fine ensemble of singers and musicians assembled by the Staatsoper.

The ill-fated lovers were well matched and very much attuned to the score's restrained — practically repressed — intensity. Anna Prohaska, one of the company's brightest young ensemble members, was a committed Iseut La Blonde. To my knowledge, this is her first role in French, and perhaps her unfamiliarity with the language accounted for the nasality that was occasionally present. But generally speaking, she dispatched her long-sustained phrases with a mesmerizing blend of resolve and fragility. As Tristan, Matthias Klink, a German tenor who has sung Tamino at the Met, projected a similar sense of frailty, combined with heroic yet legato-based phrasings, which were put to best use during his thrilling forest monologue. He was in excellent voice throughout, with an elegant and firm grip on Martin's often languid vocal writing. Like the title characters, the other singers were cast in solo roles and used as part of the ensemble — something resembling a Greek chorus that both narrates the drama and interpolates its own commentary. Katharina Kammerloher as Iseut Mere, Evelin Novak as Branghien, Virpi Räisänen as Iseut aux Blanches Mains and Ludvig Lindström as Le Roi Marc all made lasting impressions. 

Mitchell, whose work was previously seen at the house last season in a riveting production of Luigi Nono's Al Gran Sole Carico d'Amore, set the action during the period of the work's composition. A tattered curtain went up on a stage outfitted with a crumbling brick backdrop. The minimal props, often used for various situations, included several ascetic-looking tables, chairs and beds. The men wore overcoats, fedoras and vests. The women wore simple black dresses, fur coats and vintage hats. In short, it looked like a Terence Davies film. Mitchell is a highly detail-oriented director, and here she had the singers work constantly as stagehands, ritualistically setting up, lighting (with candles) and dismantling the individual scenes. During the constant sea-voyages, a swaying Iseut gripped a slack rope while another singer fanned her with a wooden board to represent her hair blowing in the wind. 

Playing from an expanded orchestra pit, the small musical force brought focus, stamina and transparency to a performance that was emotional without ever being maudlin. Conductor Franck Ollu negotiated carefully between the intertwining vocal and instrumental forces, although there were some blurry moments very early on. One exited the theater in awe of the rich and enveloping sonic experience produced by such concentrated musical resources. spacer


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