Maestro Antony Walker Previews ‘Le vin herbé’ by Wolf Trap Opera and Washington Concert Opera

Frank Martin’s rare ‘secular oratorio’ treatment of Tristan and Isolde in limited run at The Barns at Wolf Trap

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the composer’s operatic meditation on the metaphysical nature of love, sex, and death, is generally accepted to be the “before/after” point in the history of Western music. Completed in 1859, Wagner worked for an entire decade to compose his work that calls upon an entire orchestra to spin mysterious tone clouds of torrid emotion, injecting chromaticism and dissonance into a world of composition that could never return to simple resolution and tidy harmonies.

Maestro Antony Walker conducts Frank Martin's Le vin herbé at The Barns at Wolf Trap February 9-10. Photo by Christian Steiner.
Maestro Antony Walker will conduct Frank Martin’s Le vin herbé at The Barns at Wolf Trap February 9-10. Photo by Christian Steiner.

The music so bewildered Wagner’s contemporaries that several attempts to perform it were abandoned, leaving a years-long gap between its completion and its debut. Brahms famously is said to have fallen into a foul mood simply upon seeing the score.

It was in 1942 when Swiss composer Frank Martin, born 25 years after Wagner’s opus finally debuted, premiered his own concert performance version of the love story, stripping the piece into a ribbon of Wagner’s extravagance. Martin’s Le vin herbé – “the love potion” – remains an intimate affair, however, in that it features twelve singers and only eight instruments. Citing Bach’s mathematical sounds as his primary inspiration, Martin also deviated from Wagner’s plot as well.

In each version, a love potion compels the two lovers into a torrid and ultimately lethal affair. In Wagner’s telling, only in the afterlife is the couple able to live out their perfect love. In Martin’s version, debuting as it did during WWII, the focus is less on the afterlife and instead on the tragedy of two lives lost and how best to comfort those left behind.

Although the choice to recast the story indicates Martin’s cultural sensitivity, since Wagner had since become associated with Hitler and the Nazis who appropriated Wagner’s works as thematic of their cause, it was no less a brazen act by the Swiss man. Despite the Nazi taint, by then Wagner’s masterpiece was being lauded as seminal by composers who, with the power of hindsight, could recognize its impact. In 1933, English composer Benjamin Britten noted in his diary that Wagner’s Tristan “dwarfed” every other work except Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “The glorious shape of the whole, the perfect orchestration: sublime idea of it and the gigantic realisation of the idea. He is master of us all,” Britten wrote.

It is Martin’s rendition of this Celtic tale that opera lovers in the metro area have a chance to hear this weekend in a collaborative performance of the work by the Washington Concert Opera (WCO) and the Wolf Trap Opera (WTO). WCO artistic director and conductor Antony Walker will have the baton.

Until recently, performances of Martin’s perhaps best-known work have been rare. Maestro Walker told DC Metro Theater Arts that is because “companies are usually confused as to how to present it.” That seems to be changing, however, with several recent performances of the work in Europe and the UK, part of a greater trend in opera where less tends to be more.

Tenor Ian Koziara sings the role of Tristan in Frank Martin's Le vin herbé at The Barns at Wolf Trap February 9-10. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Tenor Ian Koziara sings the role of Tristan in Frank Martin’s Le vin herbé at The Barns at Wolf Trap February 9-10. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Where Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is over five hours long, with an enormous orchestra, hardly any chorus, and a transcendental finale for the dying Isolde, Martin’s treatment is barely two hours long, has an ensemble of eight musicians, and uses a Greek chorus to tell the story in intimate detail along with the soloists,” Walker said.

For its production, the WCO and WTO will depart from its typical concert-only format.

“Martin refers to Le vin herbé as a ‘secular oratorio,’ but its second major performance was staged, as I think it would have been blindingly obvious that each scene is so dramatically compelling, the work cries out for some staged theatrical elements,” Walker said in the interview.

Martin’s work might have novelty, but whether it is revolutionary or more mash-up genius is unclear, since Martin stood shoulder to shoulder with contemporaries such as Schoenberg while looking back all the way to Bach, whom he openly idolized, for his primary inspiration, and deriving the notion of how such a powerful love story could be told best in the sacred music fashion. Martin also is said to have been inspired by Debussy’s impressionistic turn-of-the-century doomed love opera, Pelléas et Mélisande.

“Wagner pushes the boundaries of traditional tonal harmony, whereas Martin uses Schoenbergian 12-tone melodies in such a way that makes them unrecognizable as anything but traditional melodic lines!” is how Walker enthused about Martin’s piece.

Still, it does slot nicely with today’s zeitgeist where opera is moving away from escapism and toward relevance.

Soprano Shannon Jennings sings the role of Iseult in Frank Martin's Le vin herbé at The Barns at Wolf Trap February 9-10. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Soprano Shannon Jennings sings the role of Iseult in Frank Martin’s Le vin herbé at The Barns at Wolf Trap February 9-10. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Maestro Walker put it this way: “The general blurring of lines between traditional styles of theatrical performance that we see nowadays I think is perfectly represented by Le vin herbé. Is it an opera? Is it an oratorio? Is it a chamber work? I am unable to define Le vin herbé by any category or label that we generally use in classical music, and I think that this is partly what makes the work so compelling, fresh and modern.”

Martin, a Genevan, composed his work in French, a notoriously difficult language to sing. Walker promised that his leads, tenor Ian Koziara and soprano Shannon Jennings, are proficient singers of French and blend nicely as they do so. Koziara is an alumnus of the Wolf Trap Opera training program, while Jennings comes from the Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Program, where Walker is also the music director.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission.

Le vin herbé, presented by Wolf Trap Opera and Washington Concert Opera, plays Saturday, February 9th at 7:30 pm and Sunday, February 10th at 3 pm at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna, VA. For tickets, go online.