At a matinee performance in the Warner Grand Theater, San Pedro, California, on May 13, 2018, Long Beach Opera (LBO) presented Swiss composer Frank Martin’s secular oratorio “The Love Potion (“Le Vin Herbé”)” as an opera. Based on Joseph Bédier’s early twentieth century “Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut,” the musical work was first performed in Zurich in 1942. Although the original libretto is in French, LBO performed it in an eminently singable English translation by Hugh MacDonald.
Since the story is taken from the same legend as Wagner’s libretto for “Tristan and Isolde,” comparisons come to mind, even if these operas have little in common. Martin’s lean and ascetic choral work has no romantic tunes for patrons to exit humming. The music of “The Love Potion” is as matter-of-fact as a bank note and the composer probably wanted it to simply allow him to state the sad tale. Thus, instead of using a full orchestra, he chose to have his twelve singers accompanied by seven stringed instruments and a piano. Where Wagner’s music is lush and romantic, Martin’s is simple and austere.
All the vocalists sing the chorus parts. Soloists merely step out of the chorus to declaim their lines and return when finished. Director Andreas Mitisek livened the procedure with choreographed movements and the use of the poles to represent any aspects of scenery that could not be supplied by projected backgrounds. Mitisek’s video backgrounds were magnificent and his stormy seascape made onlookers feel as though they were on a wave-tossed ship in danger of floundering. Most interesting were the shadows formed on the theater’s sidewalls thanks to Weingarten’s lighting designs.
Those familiar with LBO know that the company specializes in presenting singers with well-trained voices who can construct credible characterizations. As Tristan and Isolde-the-Fair, Bernard Holcomb and Jamie Chamberlin were romantic lovers who held onlookers’ interest even though they periodically returned to the chorus.
When Tristan and Isolde-the-Fair drank the love potion, they did not know it was more than ordinary wine until they found themselves in love. When King Mark discovered their love, he cursed them and they escaped to the forest where they lived in poverty until Mark again found them. They were asleep, however, and the king could not find it in his heart to kill them. When they awoke they saw that he has been in their hut and they knew they would never escape his vengeance.
Since Isolde-the-Fair was being given to King Mark and had no say in choosing her husband, she had little guilt about being in love with Tristan. He, on the other hand, had known Mark for most of his life and he felt intense guilt about his feelings of love for Mark’s bride-to-be. He could not deal with the situation, so he married Isolde-of-the-White-Hands even though he still loved Isolde-the-Fair.
Later, when Tristan is severely wounded, he asks his friend, Kahedin to bring back Isolde-the-Fair, but Isolde-of-the-White-Hands insures that it does not happen while he is still alive. Tristan and his true love can only find solace in death. There, Wagner and Martin coincide. In the Epilogue, Bédier comments, “So, perhaps they’ll find comfort and relief from the world’s inconstancy, injustice, mistrust, fraud, distress, and from all the pain of love.”
As Tristan, Bernard Holocomb was a sometimes-distracted lyrical lover who always sang with stalwart burnished tones. Jamie Chamberlin used her strong dramatic voice to illuminate Isolde-the-Fair’s lines with a variety of vocal colors ranging from pale pastels to dark jewel tones. Baritone Bernardo Bermudez was an authoritarian King Mark whose voice commanded everyone around him, but had no power over love itself.
As Branghien (Brangaene) Alejandra Villareal Martinez showed that her talent had both lyrical and a dramatic aspects. Kira Dills-DeSura, who will be the Second Lady in Central City Opera’s presentation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” this summer, was a sweet-sounding Isolde-of-the-White-Hands who showed her innocence with creamy alto tones. Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Patterson and tenor Gibran Mahmoud gave committed performances as Isolde’s Mother and Kaherdin (Kurwenal).
Maestro Ben Makino led the eight-member orchestra, which consisted of two violins, two violas, two cellos, a bass, and a piano. All were seated on one side of the pit, but the sound was well-equalized. With subtle but informative gestures, Makino led his players in sensible tempi and added pathos to the performance of this music written in a style that showed the influences of both Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenberg. Although much of the orchestral music worked its magic in a subdued manner, this conductor partnered with the singers as they dramatized their parts on stage.