I’d never heard of Swiss composer Frank Martin. And I knew nothing of his ‘secular oratorio’ Le vin herbé (1940).
So, when I knew I was going to the Schillertheater to see the Berlin Staatsoper’s new production of the piece tonight, I did a little homework. Not too much. I didn’t listen to the whole score on You Tube, because I wanted to come to the staged version of this Tristan-and-Isolde piece with my ideas clean and my mind open, both about the work – which, as an oratorio, was conceived as a concert piece before being translated (1948) to the stage – and its viability as theatre.
But I went to the opera-house in a slightly worried state of mind. Firstly, I’m wary of ‘rediscovered’ ‘cultish’ composers, and secondly, what I read about the work was unbearably pompous and ‘learned’: all about influences, and relationships, and minimalism and … nothing much about enjoyment or drama.
Well, I don’t know anything about Mons Martin’s relationships in the world of music. I went to a theatre to see a cantata (well, isn’t that a 'secular oratorio' in layman’s terms?) made to come to life as an ‘opera’.
And did it?
Well, we didn’t hear it all.
A scruffy man came into the orchestra at curtain time and told us (I think) that Isolde (Anna Prohaska) had a cold. So she left all her biggest singing out. Which made the whole thing rather lopsided.
So, what was the rest of the piece like? Some of its music was lovely. The narrative music and choral or ensemble bits in particular. Only Tristan (the vigorous Matthias Klink) has a big chunk of showy solo singing (although I presume Isolde would have had too) and … well, I preferred the choral parts.
I can see it would have been a very effective cantata, especially if you like the Pelleas and Melisande style of music. And I must say the score was given a splendid showing by the twelve young people who comprised the cast, and their mini-orchestra (conductor: Franck Ollu).
But the cantata, for me, does not make up into a satisfying or viable stage production. Certainly not in the Katie Mitchell production we saw tonight.
It seemed to be set throughout in a theatre back alley. Why? And the cast were all dressed in stylish black. Why? It was unobjectionable, but why?
And the direction didn’t solve one ounce of the problem of the episodic and narrative nature of the work. In fact, it underlined them: reducing the drama to furniture and linen being carried on and off and on and off the stage, and clothes being put on and off and on and off and on and off, until you saw the next round coming and could do little but dissolve in giggles.
In direct contrast to the show I saw last night – a staged version of the Brahms Requiem at Radialsystem – where the staging added to the effect of an inherently non-stage piece; tonight’s did nothing of the kind. Indeed, it almost detracted from it.
I shall dream, tonight, of beds and tables and hats and coats, when I should be dreaming of Tristan and Isolde.
And I honestly don’t think I’d have felt any differently if Isolde had sung for half an hour.
So Le vin herbé cantata I would happily listen to again. Le vin herbé stage opera – or whatever – once is enough.