Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Le Vin Herbé; Madam Butterfly

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Le Vin Herbé; Madam Butterfly

Article excerpt

Frank Martin is one of those composers whose work seems to survive only by virtue of constantly renewed neglect. His quite large body of work is well represented in the CD catalogues, but rarely performed in the UK. One of his most powerful works is Le Vin herbé, though his fully-fledged opera on The Tempest also deserves revival. Welsh National Opera, ever adventurous, has mounted a staged version of Le Vin herbé, and despite its being more of a cantata than an opera and in English. The text is based on Joseph Bédier's version of the Tristan myth, so some reference to Wagner, in discussing it, is inevitable. Written at the end of the 1930s, Martin's piece is deliberately non-Germanic, though clearly anyone writing a work with Tristan as a model at any time would be mad. Nonetheless, for any literate opera lover, thoughts of Wagner's masterpiece are inevitable. Indeed, Vin may be one of those rare works that need to be experienced in relation to a preceding one. For whereas much of the allure of Tristan und Isolde is due to its pervasive ambiguity, romantic love presented as both the only thing ultimately worth existing for, and as the deepest source of anguish, Vin makes no bones about the unmitigated misery of love. Its last words warn us about 'the injustice, the grief, the pains, all the pangs of love'. Its lovers fall in love by accident, drinking of the fatal potion, whereas Wagner's are already desperately in love, the potion merely a trigger.

Vin presents the story through a combination of, and alternation between, narrative and reflection on the one hand, and dialogue and action on the other, in proportions roughly similar to those of a Truffaut film. In director Polly Graham's and designer April Dalton's staging the chamber ensemble are at the centre of the stage, and behind them there is a raised walkway with stairs at either end. When Tristan and Iseult unite it is on the walkway, and -- I think against the mode of the work, though effectively -- Tristan hastily removes his tie and jacket and untucks his shirt, while gently easing Iseult out of her long white dress, leaving her in her petticoat. The two lovers are admirably sung by Caitlin Hulcup and Tom Randle, but powerful as Randle is, it seemed to me that he acted in a style incongruous with the rest of the piece. He goes in for a full-blooded performance, as if in the other Tristan, writhing, staggering, and so on in a way at odds with the prevailing statuesque quality of the performance --but he is affecting. …

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