Long Beach Opera took a risk by presenting "Le Vin Herbé" (The Love Potion), composer Frank Martin's elegant Gallic take on the medieval legend of doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde, in a 1,500-seat Art Deco movie palace. The 1941 oratorio, after all, emphasizes intimacy over grandeur.
But in the work's West Coast premiere Saturday at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro — a semi-staged production led by company General Director Andreas Mitisek — "The Love Potion" proved a powerfully affecting alternative to Wagner's more epic and revolutionary 1865 opera, "Tristan und Isolde."
Martin's score employs a chamber orchestra consisting of just seven strings and a piano. A 12-member vocal group acts like a Greek chorus, with individuals occasionally stepping forward as soloists.
Long sticks carried by singers were used to suggest oars or a dense forest or turbulently rolling waves. Mood and atmosphere were imaginatively enhanced by lighting designer Dan Weingarten.
One effect called for the sticks to be dropped into a campfire-like pile, with reddish lights suggesting the couple's smoldering passion. It also conjured an aura of storytelling itself, returning this legendary tale to its roots.
In a production that ran about two hours (compared with Wagner's five for "Tristan"), Mitisek's judicious use of video projections on the theater's big screen added a welcome bit of depth and color, keeping our eyes alert to settings of castle, forest and ocean.
The solid cast was led by Bernard Holcomb, whose warm tenor voice imbued the tormented Tristan with quiet dignity and down-to-earth humanity.
Soprano Jamie Chamberlin sang the demanding high tessitura role of Isolde with unshowy reserve. One quibble: The chemistry between the two lovers was never quite palpable, but that may have been director Mitisek's decision. Because their affair is magically induced, it's angst-ridden and exhilarating.
Baritone Bernardo Bermudez made an understandably hurt but humane King Mark (whose bride is stolen away before their wedding night). Soprano Alejandra Villarreal Martinez as Branghien, Isolde's maid who mistakenly gives the potion to Tristan and Isolde, conveyed believable anguish.
As the evil Isolde of the White Hands (yes, there were two Isolde's in the text sources Martin used), alto Kira Dills-DeSurra's malevolence is carefully calibrated. It is she who betrays Tristan and her rival, the "fair" Isolde (Chamberlin), out of jealousy.
Ultimately, the glory of "The Love Potion" is Martin's magnificent score, which Benjamin Makino conducted meticulously. Makino, consistently sensitive to the work's exquisite timing and placement of dynamics and color, made the most of the composer's subtle chamber orchestra textures.
Indeed, Martin, who died in 1974, uses hints of Schoenberg's 12-tone technique and Bartók-like dissonance within his flowing tonal scheme to striking effect. There's also a bit of medieval chant in the score, which rarely rises above a forte, suggesting the influence of Debussy's dramatically allusive, impressionist opera, "Pelléas et Mélisande."
Although supertitles were supplied above the theater screen, the text of "The Love Potion," rendered in an eloquent English version prepared by Hugh MacDonald, was precisely articulated by the cast in the Warner Grand's surprisingly clear acoustics.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Le Vin Herbé’ (The Love Potion)
Where: Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Info: (562) 470-7464, www.longbeachopera.org
Running time: About 2 hours
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