Saturday, November 22, 2014

Love and death in Brookline with Boston Lyric Opera

Isolt is forgiven by King Mark; Chelsea Basler and David McFerrin in The Love Potion. Photos: Eric Antoniou

Sometimes I wonder whether there isn't something in opera that hates the walls of the theatre, that wants them down.

For whenever Boston Lyric Opera leaves its theatrical home, it seems to bloom a bit more, and something extraordinary happens. Indeed, since the company began its "Annex" productions five or six years ago - and took opera out into "found spaces" in and around the Hub - they seem to have moved from triumph to triumph.

Their current Annex effort, Frank Martin's The Love Potion (although I much prefer its original title, Le vin herbé), only extends that grand run. BLO has set Martin's oratorio (it's not quite an opera, but close enough!) in the soaring sanctuary of Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, and handed the reins of the production over to David Schweizer, who directed the brilliant Emperor of Atlantis a few seasons back.

And with the help of lighting designer Robert Wierzel, Schweizer may have actually outdone his own previous achievement. He not only suggests the hybrid nature of Martin's work in his staging, but also evokes the very essence of its vision in a haunting mix of braided movement and calm tableaux - and a gifted cast of singers (with the help of conductor David Angus, leading a strong ensemble of strings and piano) does the rest. You could argue with some details of this production - I, for one, don't see the need for an English translation (although Hugh Macdonald's rendition proved beguiling); but it seems to me that Schweizer's conception could not be faulted - indeed, it may be almost definitive.

Of course something about the resonant hush of the Temple Ohabei Shalom all by itself conjures the mystical atmosphere of the Tristan and Iseult myth, which forms the core of The Love Potion.  But if you imagine you're familiar with the plot from Wagner's titanic take on it - well, think again; for the Swiss-born Martin diverges from Tristan und Isolde in just about every detail.  Right on the surface the contrasts may be obvious - Wagner's orchestration is insistently lush, Martin's evocatively spare - but deeper, subtler differences convince the listener that Martin is after almost a reclamation of this classic text from Wagner's hands.

Is that unfair to Wagner? Many argue we should refrain from blaming that half-mad genius for the Nazis' later identification with his music. But we can blame him for his anti-Semitism, methinks - surely that much is fair! - which gives a deeply moving resonance to staging this oratorio in a synagogue (particularly one as gorgeous as Temple Ohabei Shalom).

It also highlights Schweizer's key insight into Le vin herbé  - at bottom, it's about grief. Indeed, it's worth noting Frank Martin was not only reacting to the rise of the Nazis when he composed the oratorio in the early 40's,  but was also mourning the death of his wife. And Temple Ohabei Shalom, I must mention, just lost one of its own members to the recent terror attack in Jerusalem.

Schweizer's priesthood at the well of grief.

So the opera's theme simply couldn't be more immediate, and Schweitzer has devised a brilliant way to sound its underlying note of loss: the scenic design encircles two shafts of light emanating from a kind of a radiant well of grief, a glowing omphalos.  At one level these stand for the doomed Tristan and Isolt, of course - but on another level, they represent our own twin towers, and the lingering shadow of 9/11.  Grief, Schweizer is saying, is a universal - it's at the very center of the world for everyone.

But intriguingly, Martin also returns to the original myth to disentangle its hero and heroine from Wagner's death obsession.  Here the titular love potion is never equated or confused with poison, and Tristan only brings his tragic fate down upon his head when he forsakes Isolt.  In fact the lovers briefly escape to an enchanted wood in this version, where they enjoy a chaste idyll - which moves the forbearing King Mark to forgive his wife for her betrayal (much as Arthur forgave Guinevere) and allow her return as his queen. It is only when the forlorn, frustrated Tristan accepts as his betrothed another Isolt,  "Isolt of the White Hands" (an ironic moniker, that one!) that fate turns against him.

Which brings me to another contrast between Le vin herbé  and Tristan und Isolde.  Wagner's opera famously depends on "the Tristan chord," four plaintive notes which straddle two keys no matter how you transpose them; they serve as a concrete musical metaphor for impossible love, and help Wagner sustain a mounting musical (and sexual) cadence for literally hours.

Martin, needless to say, takes a very different harmonic tack.  His musical mode moves between a haunting dissonance and an unexpectedly rich tonality - which generally sounds when the text speaks of God, or the spiritual.  The music for Tristan and Isolt is similar - it trends toward the tonal when the lovers are most chastely committed, and subtly devolves toward dissonance when they fail in their duty (or fail one another).  So there's no Liebestod here, no transcendent orgasm, no love/death - love is one thing, and death another.  It's a humble, but devastating, musical statement.

Tristan and Isolt share the fateful potion: Jon Jurgens, David Cushing, Michelle Trainor and Chelsea Basler.

So much for Martin and Wagner, you're no doubt saying by now - what about this particular production?  Well, for the most part it's remarkable.  There are a few balance issues, of course, that come from performing in the round (and beneath a vault) - but fewer than you'd expect, frankly, and the sacred atmosphere I'd argue more than makes up for them.  Both Tristan and Isolt are superb, although Tristan is the leading role by far, and tenor Jon Jurgens emerges from it a star; his persona is more that of a common man than a noble (which is as it should be), but the voice is supple, ardent and airborne, able to float to glowing heights and then simply hang there.  Alas, we just don't get to hear enough from Isolt, or the luminous Chelsea Basler, who is not only an exquisite beauty but possesses a soprano of surprisingly even richness across its range; that's perhaps the one downside to Martin's scheme, which emphasizes choral story-telling over drama.

But Schweizer's handling of the choral nature of the performance counts among its great successes; he presents his singers first as priests, in white robes, who move in braided formation until they assume individual "character" (at which point they drop their robes to reveal abstracted Celtic garb). And among that chorus, there are several vocal stand-outs, including our own reliable local bass David Cushing, and baritone David McFerrin, who offers an intriguing portrait of the pivotal King Mark (at top). Elsewhere Michaelle Trainor distinguished herself as a compellingly torn Brangain (the maid initially entrusted with the love potion), and Rachel Hauge etched her Isolt of the White Hands with vengeful economy.

Still, the central star of this production may be Robert Wierzel's lighting. The action is mostly lit from below, by a luminous floor that (like various glowing props) echoes the two white shafts rising from the center of the set. There's one unfortunate moment when the stage suddenly flashes like a dance floor, but Wierzel mostly bathes the singers in washes of soulful blue; it's like watching Le vin herbé at twilight - or through a cleansing rainstorm. Which I think is precisely what Frank Martin would have wished.

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