VIENNA, Virginia, February 15, 2019. In their first-ever collaboration, the Washington Concert Opera (WCO) and the Wolf Trap Opera (WTO) combined forces at Wolf Trap’s Barns last weekend to present Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le vin herbé. Rarely-heard in the US, and possibly performed for the first time in this area, this modernist gem of an opera is a rather novel retelling of the ancient Celtic legend that Richard Wagner made internationally famous in his groundbreaking Tristan and Isolde.
How is Le vin herbé not like Tristan and Isolde?
Unlike Wagner’s massive Tristan, however, Martin’s musical interpretation of the legend, based on Joseph Bédier’s novelistic re-weaving of the Celtic story, was seemingly conceived as more of an oratorio than an opera. It’s scored for 12 singers performing as an ensemble, from which individual singers emerge to take on Le vin’sseveral solo roles. The singers are accompanied by a small chamber orchestra consisting of eight instrumentalists.
Le vin is a complex, somewhat disquieting work whose unusual form and scoring have kept it a bit of a secret here in the US. One significant issue: there’s no real consensus on exactly how to mount it.
In some ways, this reminds us of an entirely different opera – Szymanowksi’s divinely bizarre King Roger. Szymanowski’s work, while scored for massive choral and orchestral forces, is in many ways a philosophical dissertation on faith and sexuality with an almost indiscernible plot structure. Anyone wishing to stage confronts the same dilemma as WCO and WTO faced when they decided to offer Le vin: Concert opera / oratorio or fully staged opera?
Martin’s unique operatic approach to a Celtic legend
Given WCO’s participation in this joint production, the answer was likely an easy one: Stage Le vin herbé as a concert opera. But with a few minimalist stage effects. In fact, that’s similar to the way Frank Martin introduced his full version of the work to the public in its 1942 world premiere performance.
Wagner’s Tristanis cosmic and spiritual in scope. Martin’s telling of the story, based on Bédier’s novel is simpler and more down to earth. It has its magical elements – mainly the incorrectly administered love potion – but Martin’s new twist is more personal, more compact, more intimate and more sympathetic toward the lives of those left bereft after the passing of our tragic hero and heroine.
Martin’s work advances the story’s plot primarily by means of the chorus. Functioning much like the chorus in ancient Greek dramatic works, Martin’s chorus acts as both narrator and commentator on the tragic love story as it unfolds.
Stepping out from the chorus at key intervals, Ian Koziara and Shannon Jennings portrayed the central characters, Tristan and Isolde. Both singers as well as the rest of the chorus are Wolf Trap Opera alumni. Other members of the chorus likewise emerged at appropriate intervals to take on this work’s several supporting roles.
How to make serialism palatable for an audience while still conveying a story
What’s actually quite unusual about Le vin is that for most of his career, Frank Martin was a dedicated follower of serialism, aka, “atonality,” a term 12-tone adherents generally detest. I’ve voiced many times in my columns both here and – before its near-death experience in 2010 – at the Washington Times, that the academic fetish for serialism throughout nearly all the 20thcentury poisoned classical music, driving many individuals out of concert halls rather than endure the screechy awfulness of the latest declared 12-tone scale “masterpiece.”
Martin seems, for the most part, to have dodged this issue, at least somewhat. This highly individualistic composer redefined serialism in his own personal way. He found his unique voice by effectively warping that system’s rigid, essentially mathematical rules, to compose modernist music in that tradition that was more or less palatable and even sometimes appealing to audiences still seeking the comfort of Western tonality when they visited the concert hall to hear a new work.
And so it is that in Le vin, we get a musical version of what dramatists might call a “closet drama,” a variety of stage play that eschews stage trappings while focusing on emotional inner turmoil and/or the poetry of language. In closet drama, little appears to “happen.” But that’s deceptive. A great deal, in fact, happens in the mental and emotional travels of the closet drama’s primary characters.
Martin, Le vin, the story, the presentation and the ghost of verismo
In short, Le vin is essentially a passionate and ultimately tragic conversation among its central characters, with the chorus frequently stepping in to advance the plot and provide missing details. And it’s for this reason – the work’s often-conversational tone – that Martin’s massaging of serialism’s rigid rules creates the kind of verismo, “sung drama” effect that both Wagner and even Verdi, in his late operas, strove to achieve. In other words, few if any “tunes,” but, rather, music that in and of itself provided a deeper underpinning the opera’s conversations and dialogue.
To be sure, Martin’s quasi-serialist Le vin bears little musical resemblance to vintage verismo opera. But it gets close enough to that sensation that even the most skeptical, tradition-loving opera-goer will find it easy to adjust to the work and even enjoy its deeply affecting humanity.
Chorus, soloists and the small, intimate ensemble in this WCO / WTO effort performed Martin’s unfairly neglected work with drama and sensitivity under the baton of long-time WCO music director Antony Walker. The near-capacity opening night audience warmly appreciated the performance. And theopportunity to hear something almost entirely brand new, even though this intimate opera was actually a product of the 1940s.
In fact, this unique, co-op performance was such a surprise success that WCO and WTO might very well consider staging annual collaborative efforts as an integral part of future seasons. #
Since these performances were for one weekend only, here’s a brief Wolf Trap Opera-Washington Concert Opera rehearsal video that will give you a flavor of Le vin herbé in case you missed these performances.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars.)
— Headline image: Entrance to The Barns at Wolf Trap, circa 2014.
(Image via Wikimedia, GNU 1.2 free use license)