The Love Potion

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Over the course of operatic history, numerous stories have proved popular enough to be reimagined by multiple composers. Like Wagner before him, Swiss-born composer Frank Martin took his inspiration for The Love Potion (Le Vin Herbe) from the medieval love story of Tristan and Isolde.

Though they share a bond in their source material, it’s hard to imagine two operas as radically different as The Love Potion and Tristan and Isolde. Wagner’s five-hour epic uses a gigantic orchestra and a lushly poetic libretto to examine the relationship of two people seemingly as much in love with death as each other. Martin’s piece is musically spare, featuring an eight-piece chamber orchestra, and dramatically formal in its use of a chorus to narrate the drama. He eschews Wagner’s extravagant romanticism in favor of the tale’s medieval astringency and its sober praise of courtly love.

To be fair, Martin never expected any comparison with Tristan und Isolde, as The Love Potion, first produced in 1940, was conceived as an oratorio and, therefore, not intended for dramatic performance. Still, this neat and compact production by Long Beach Opera makes a strong case for The Love Potion as an alternate version to Wagner’s operatic staple.

Tristan (Bernard Holocomb) escorts Isolde (Jamie Chamberlin) from Ireland to Cornwall where she is to wed his Lord, King Mark (Bernardo Bermudez). On the journey, Isolde’s companion Branghien (Alejandra Villareal Martinez) mistakenly offers them a love potion devised by Isolde’s mother for her daughter and the King. From that moment, they are doomed to share a passion they cannot act on out of respect for the King.

Andreas Mitisek directs the production as well as creating all of the design elements. His stripped down design and ritualistic staging feel like the perfect realization of Martin’s somber vision. Chorus members not only narrate the plot but create the scenic elements with a clever use of wooden poles. The choice of a poor theater aesthetic adds an appropriately ceremonial aspect to the piece and brings a raw intensity which might have been lost in a production burdened with conventional sets.

Holocomb sings Tristan with a lovely lyricism that brings humanity to the character. Chamberlin’s role offers more opportunities for emotion, and she makes the most of them with her strong-voiced and well-enunciated Isolde. Bermudez’s powerful but warm tones make his King Mark both commanding and sympathetic. Conductor Ben Makino leads the orchestra in a sensitive reading of the score that brings out the subtle beauties in Martin’s music.

Warner Grand Theatre     May 13 & 19, 2018