Tom Busse's ever-adventurous City Concert Opera presented Frank Martin's
1941 "Le Vin Herb?" ("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 Herb?" 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 B?dier. (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 B?dier 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 Brang?ne (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
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 and superbly.
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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