Tom Busse's ever-adventurous City Concert Opera presented Frank Martin's
1941 "Le Vin Herbe" ("The poisoned wine") in San Francisco's Jewish
Community Center tonight, clearly proving two points.
First, the Swiss composer wrote beautifully and affectingly for small
chorus and a chamber orchestra. It is amazing and sad that Martin's
music is so rarely heard, and that this chamber opera has never been
performed in San Francisco. Clearly influenced by Debussy (with a touch
of Bartok) and early Schoenberg - "Transfigured Night" and quiet passages
of "Gurrelieder" lurk in the mind of the listener throughout - the
100-minute "Le Vin Herbe" is a memorable musical experience.
Second, the evening served as a reminder of Richard Wagner's genius.
Martin used a noted early 20th century "restoration" of the Tristan
legend in "The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, drawn from the best French
sources and retold by Joseph Bedier. (The text, "rendered into English
by Hilare Belloc" in 1913, is available at www.gutenberg.org/etext/14244.)
Wagner had radically modified the story, and thank heaven for that.
"Tristan and Isolde" is a literary and pscyhological masterpiece in its
cohesion, logic and impact. The Bedier version, claimed by some as the
"real Tristan," is a confused and confusing mess - the opera's impact
coming entirely from the music.
The poisoned wine, the elixir of love (and death), comes into play as
the result of an accident, a young woman serving it without knowing its
magic powers, not at the all the deliberate act by Brangane (Branghien
here, sung by Tonia d'Amelio). Isolde (Iseult, sung by Carole Schaffer)
marries King Marke (Marc, sung by Jeffrey Fields), and after a few unhappy
years, she is "found out," and is banished to a leper colony (!) as she
is escaping with Tristan (John Owens, in a committed performance, using
a small voice to its best advantage).
There follows years of great, if chaste, love in the wilderness (of the
lepers?), a mutual decision to "return" Isolde to King Marke, Tristan's
marriage to an other Isolde (of the White Hands), the second Isolde's
revenge, etc., etc. In the end, the two lovers ("friends" in this
version) die separately, but a briar springs from his tomb, reaches
to hers, and the relationship takes on a botanical happy ending.
And yet, with all that business (and much more, most of it disconnected),
the power of Martin's music is such that - when performed well by the
orchestra, as it was tonight - one is touched, even if the story "doesn't
make sense," as it certainly does in Wagner's treatment, which both
compresses and simplifies.
Martin uses 12 singers as a chorus, a narrating presence as in a Passion,
with soloists stepping forward to sing their lines, returning to the
chorus. Seven strings and a piano lay down a gorgeous orchestral carpet,
violist Ellen Ruth Rose, cellist Leighton Fong, and Michel Taddei,
contrabass, turning in outstanding performances. Busse - who provided
approximate, but very helpful supertitles - conducted the work consistently
Busse also made a brief, but vastly entertaining introduction to
the evening, including a startling bit of information. The State of
California, he averred, beginning with the new year, requires that exits
be pointed out before any public performance. One wonders how that's
going to play out in concert halls and opera houses - after all, it's
not a matter of making an announcement, you have to SHOW where the exits
are. Will conductors do the deed, as Busse did tonight? I can just
imagine Rostropovich - coming to Davies Hall to lead two all-Shostakovich
programs - serving as your friendly flight attendant. Yes, Slava, of
all people, could do that very well.
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