Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer

Love Potion Makes Intriguing Fare In Synagogue Setting

Many opera companies have mounted shows in nontraditional venues, but Boston Lyric Opera seems to bring the ambiance of an opera house into community spaces. The company presented its sixth annual Opera Annex production on Nov. 19 at Temple Ohabei Shalom, a staging of Frank Martin’s The Love Potion (Le vin herbé) that was elaborate enough to rival what you might see on a smaller company’s main stage, and with a cast as strong as any you might hear anywhere.

Yet there were good reasons for Boston Lyric to present the Boston premiere of this lesser-known 1940 treatment of the Tristan and Isolt myth as an alternative Annex production. First of all, it’s not completely clear that Martin’s work is, in fact, an opera. The Swiss composer originally wrote it as an oratorio, and it is arguably better suited to concert performance. Second, the piece is cast for just 12 singers who double as soloists and chorus, and it is orchestrated for a mere string sextet with a bass and piano. Given the compact scope of the work, the alternative venue makes a lot of sense.

The temple’s sanctuary was converted into a theater-in-the-round and an elaborate lighting rig served as the primary means of establishing setting and atmosphere. The cast performed on a stage of metal grating with a glowing pool at the center, while the little pit band, conducted by Boston Lyric music director David Angus, played from a raised platform in front of the temple’s ark.

The piece’s source material, adapted most famously by Wagner, originated in Celtic myth. In Martin’s version—based on Joseph Bédier’s 1900 novel Le roman de Tristan et Iseut—Isolt is betrothed to King Mark, but a mistakenly ingested love potion instead makes her fall in love with Tristan, the King’s nephew. After a prolonged wilderness exile, the two bewitched lovers part ways, and Tristan ultimately marries another woman — inexplicably also named Isolt. In a tragic ending, Tristan is betrayed by his wife and dies of battle wounds before the original and ever-committed Isolt can make it back to see him one last time.

Despite much talk of the site-specific nature of the show, Boston Lyric’s production—directed by David Schweizer and designed by James Noone—seemed to emphasize the incongruity between the opera and the venue. Certainly there’s no inherent problem with using a synagogue as a space for secular art, but it’s odd to have a quasi-Arthurian romance unfolding onstage while spotlights highlight a Star of David on the ceiling. The music and venue also raised some dramatic and acoustic challenges that the creative team couldn’t overcome. Betraying the piece’s concert hall origins, much of the libretto is straight narration that plods when combined with onstage action. “He placed his lips on hers,” the chorus explains as we watch Tristan kiss Isolt. “Tristan observed that she was weeping,” they sing later, as if giving a play-by-play commentary.

Throughout the performance, there was much more telling than showing, and this raised barriers to emotional entry and engagement. Far from breaking the fourth wall, this piece seemed committed to shoring it up. The temple also proved to be an inconsistent space for musical listening. In general, opera-in-the-round is problematic because singing is directional: Every time a singer turns to face the opposite side of the audience, volume and clarity substantially diminish for the listeners now facing the back of her head. The little orchestra, too, struggled to be heard in the temple’s domed space. For those not seated directly adjacent to them, the eight players sometimes sounded rather anemic.

Aside from these acoustic shortcomings, the music itself proved invariably attractive. Chromatic harmonies creep around, and Martin’s compositional style displays an interesting reliance on ostinato. His instrumental writing lurks and lilts and seems to draw in equal measure from expressionism and impressionism.

Yet the music still feels implacable. Martin is stylistically distinctive enough not to be confused with any more familiar composer, but still he doesn’t cry out with a unified and entirely compelling voice of his own. Beautiful moments lodge in the memory, but then long stretches verge on musical wallpaper. The vocal writing tends toward endless recitative in solo passages, while the choral writing is more adeptly crafted: It often meshes seamlessly into the instrumental scoring to augment the small orchestra.

All of the Boston Lyric singers were excellent, both as solo voices and as an ensemble, and the cast dispatched Hugh Macdonald’s new English translation of Martin’s libretto with impeccable diction. Soprano Chelsea Basler particularly shone as Isolt, The Fair, and navigated her climactic sea-voyage scene with gorgeous tone and acutely sensitive acting. Tenor Jon Jurgens made a sturdy Tristan, and the superb soprano Michelle Trainor, baritone David McFerrin, and bass Duke Hoël filled out the secondary roles. Mezzo-soprano Rachel Hauge played the other Isolt—Isolt of the White Hands—as a slightly hammy villain.

But perhaps that role should be taken more seriously, for the dynamic between the two Isolts—one chemically addicted to Tristan by the titular love potion, and the other legally his wife—provided more dramatic grist than the central love story itself. The dynamic between King Mark and Tristan worked similarly: Tristan is hooked on Isolt, The Fair, but she is rightfully betrothed to the King.

Two moments that feature these relationships stand out from the rest of the opera. The first is when King Mark finds Tristan and Isolt asleep in the forest and considers killing them, but instead settles on compassion and lets them live. The second is near the end when Isolt, The Fair, confronts Isolt of the White Hands over Tristan’s body. “I assure you, I loved him more,” says the Isolt bewitched by the potion to the woman who is his wife.

The closing chorus—not to mention the Boston Lyric’s publicity materials—spins the piece as an inspiring tale for those in search of pure and eternal love. But isn’t a love created by magic essentially vacuous? Perhaps The Love Potion is less for star-crossed lovers and more for those betrayed by the illicit loves of others.

Review originally appeared in Classical Voice North America

Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer