Staatsoper Berlin:”Le Vin Herbé”

Staatsoper Berlin, season 2013/2014 
Secular oratori after three chapters of the novel Tristan et Iseut by Joseph Bédier for 12 singers, 7 string instruments, and a piano.
Music Frank Martin
Soprano 2 | Iseut la blonde ANNA PROHASKA
Soprano 3| Branghien EVELIN NOVAK
Alto 4 | Iseut aux blanches mains VIRPI RÄISÄNEN
Tenor 2 | Tristan MATTHIAS KLINK
Tenor 3 | Kaherdin PETER GIJSBERTSEN
Bass 6 | Le Duc Hoel
Members of the Staatskapelle Berlin: Wolfram Brandl, Yunna Shevchenko, Yulia Deyneka, Boris Bardenhagen, Andreas Greger, Nikolaus Hanjohr-Popa, Mathias Winkler, Frank-Immo Zichner
Conductor Franck Olluv
Production Katie Mitchell
Co-production Joseph W Alford
Stage and costumes Lizzie Clachan
Light James Farncombe 
Berlin,  26th April 2014

 The English theatre director Katie Mitchell staged Frank Martin’s secular oratorio Le vin herbé (Magic potion) at the Berliner Staatsoper in the run of 2013, the year that saw Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday. It was brave as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is by far one of the greatest musical dramas in the history of opera. Based on three chapters of the novel TRISTAN ET ISEUT by Joseph Bédier, Martin’s work is about the same story but that is the only thing the two composers have in common. Martin’s musical language totally differs from Wagner’s. There is no endless melody of Weltschmerz, no pompous outbreak of a thick and full orchestra sound, no transfiguration of a Liebestod. The music never leaves the tonal and is close to Debussy and through the similar subject – eternal love beyond death – you cannot help having Pelléas et Mélisande very much on the brain. Scored for a string septet (Wolfram Brandl, Yunna Shevchenko, Yulia Deyneka, Boris Bardenhagen, Andreas Greger, Nikolaus Hanjohr-Popa, Mathias Winkler), piano (Frank-Immo Zichner), and a twelve singer chorus, it is a work of impressive minimalism and emotion. It may be typical of Frank Martin, the youngest of ten children of a Calvinist pastor in Geneva, that he composed Le vin herbé at a time when the rest of Europe saw the cruelties of the Second World War. Katie Mitchell decided to set the action at that time. A tattered black curtain opens to the interior of a damaged brick building (stage and costumes by Lizzie Clachan). Snow is coming in. It is cold and an open fire is to give some heat. The twelve singers form a chorus in the tradition of the ancient Greek drama. Dressed in warm clothes (fur coats, hats etc) in the fashion of the 1930s each of them contributes to the run of the drama by stepping forward, taking off the coat, the hat etc to sing his or her part and go back to the chorus dressing fully up against the cold again. The only exception is the blonde Iseut at the end when she puts a red dress from the Middle Ages on to die at Tristan’s side. Few props are used only for various situations and include empty tables, chairs, and beds. Mitchell has the singers work as stagehands setting up a scene, lighting it with candles, dismantling it. Ropes and a white sheet are pulled out to indicate the sea voyages, a singer produces wind with a washing board, a bed is used as the place where Tristan and Iseut find shelter in the woods and both die at the end. All that underlines the narrative character of the oratorio which is directed by Mitchell as exactly what it is. The action seems slowed down, sometimes even to a slow-motion replay giving it a contemplative touch of metaphysics or meditation. The blonde Iseut’s constant fortune-telling by cards seems to be a little superfluous. The chorus tells the story of Tristan et Iseut la blonde’s love, some of the singers take over the parts of the characters for the present scene to return to the chorus. It is a kind of theatre on the theatre and the singers remain a homogeneous chorus of 12 individuals: Narine Yeghiyan, Stephanie Atanasov, Thorbjorn Gulbrandsoy, and Arttu Kataja without taking over a character but solo scenes. In Martin’s Tristan version Iseut’s mother appears at the beginning with the magic potion to ask Branghien to serve it to King Marc and Queen Iseut to love each other eternally. Katharina Kammerloher sings the scene with her warm and round alto in a compelling and touching way. King Marc is sung by Ludvig Lindström whose full-sounding bass fits the character very well. Evelin Novak has wonderful light tones for Branghien. Jan Martinik as Duke Hoel and Virpi Räisänen as the white-handed Iseut left lasting impressions. Anna Prohaska, a popular young member of the Staatsoper company is an attractive blonde Iseut by both appearance and voice. She manages nice long phrases as well as the narrative declamation with her light soprano. The probably most extensive and elaborate part of Martin’s work is Tristan sung by Matthias Klink, a German tenor who has already done Tamino at the Metropolitan Opera. His tenor is amazingly able to manage more heroic passages and his long monologue in the second act is a mesmerizing moment when he realizes King Marc’s mercy not to have killed the two sleeping lovers. Altogether the singers have basically lyrical voices that match the musical structure of the oratorio by forming a homogeneous chorus that opens and finishes the evening. Conductor Franck Ollu carefully kept the balance between the intertwining vocal and instrumental forces and created a wonderful sound space. I left the theatre deeply impressed by the sonic experience produced by such focused musical resources. Photo Hermann & Clärchen Baus