Wednesday, November 26, 2014

DR. VON LYRIC – Looking....

Instead of our more usual videos, I thought this week we might just quietly glance at a few of the myriad visual images generated by the passionate saga of Tristan and Isolde. These range from medieval paintings to more modern takes by Beardsley and Dali, among others. I haven't arranged them chronologically or  identified them individually just let their colorful or erotic, bold, or quaint evocations flow over you. Hope you got a chance to see BLO's take on the Tristan was bold....erotic...and powerful in its own right, and the setting in the Temple was magnificent.





Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Prof. Byron Adams
Magda Romanska, BLO Dramaturg and Associate Professor of Dramaturgy at Emerson College, talks to Prof. Byron Adams about Frank Martin’s The Love Potion. Prof. Adams is a world-renowned musicologist, composer, and a leading expert on Frank Martin. Prof. Adams specializes in British music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His essays have appeared in journals such as The Musical Quarterly and Music and Letters. In 2007, he was appointed scholar-in-residence for the Bard Music Festival, and edited Edward Elgar and His World (Princeton, 2007). As a composer, Prof. Adams won the Grand Prize of the Delius Festival Composition Competition, and in 1984, he was awarded the Raymond Hubbell-ASCAP Award for his compositions. He was composer-in-residence for the Colonial Symphony Orchestra from 1990-92, and in 1985, he was granted the first Ralph Vaughan Williams Research Fellowship by the Carthusian Trust of England. In 2000, the American Musicological Society recognized his scholarship with the Philip Brett Award. In 2007, Prof. Adams was a Visiting Fellow for the Institute of Musical Research, School of Advanced Studies of the University of London. Prof. Adams received his Ph.D. in musicology from Cornell University where he wrote his dissertation on Frank Martin’s music.

MR: Can you tell us a little bit about the history behind the making of The Love Potion?  Not many people know that this is not an actual opera but oratorio. Can you explain the difference and how it could potentially influence the performance and the staging of the piece?

BA: The history of Le vin herbé really goes back to Martin’s experience of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion when he was just twelve years old, the eighth son of a stern but loving Huguenot pastor in Geneva. The reason that I trace the origin of Le vin herbé—“The Love Potion”—to this shattering experience was that it gave Martin a predilection for what might well be called “interior drama.” In other words, the drama that takes place in the minds and souls of the protagonists. Martin composed Le vin herbé in 1938: “I had no major compositions planned, but the legend of Tristan and Isolde consumed my thoughts. At that moment, Robert Blum asked me to write a half-hour piece for his Madrigal Choir, scored for twelve solo voices and a few instruments.” Martin uses the retelling of this Celtic legend by Joseph Bédier, specifically the chapter on the love potion that sets the tragedy in motion. After the premiere of this first version of Le vin herbé, Martin decided to expand his work by setting two other excerpts of Bédier’s “romance.”

MR: The subject matter of The Love Potion is the myth of Tristan and Iseult, the same story as Wagner’s most famous opera. What are the major structural and dramatic differences and similarities between the two works? 

BA: First, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is scored for a large Romantic orchestra and lasts several hours. Le vin herbé, by contrast, is concise and modestly scored—but conjures up the entire story with a mixture of economy and passion. Martin uses the chamber chorus in the manner of a madrigal fable or as the chorus of a Greek drama—or the St. Matthew Passion. As in Bach’s masterpiece, the chorus delivers narration and comments on the action, which is utterly unlike Wagner’s music drama. Interestingly enough, Claude Debussy toyed with the idea of turning Bédier’s romance into his own version of the Tristan and Isolde story. Debussy sought a more Gallic restraint and delicacy than the oceanic, Teutonic eroticism of Wagner’s masterpiece. Debussy’s aim is exactly what Martin miraculously achieves in Le vin herbé. Simply put, Martin’s Le vin herbé is passionate, yes, but, unlike Wagner’s music drama, is wonderfully discreet, objective, and inward. Deep emotion is, paradoxically, generated through an essential restraint.

MR: Although the production history of The Love Potion isn’t extensive, the piece has acquired almost a cult status among its many devoted fans.  Can you tell us more about the reception and the production history of the work?

BA: Le vin herbé is a work that has had relatively few performances, as the score is not exactly easy to perform! One problem is that it is often regarded as an “oratorio,” which it is most emphatically not—it is in an unclassifiable genre. Perhaps the best description of Le vin herbé is that it is a “Passion” about passion, as it were. Most performances have been in concert, but the work is best known through recordings. Le vin herbé will always appeal first and foremost to listeners who can comprehend fully the sophisticated aesthetic of this work, in which nothing is shouted and yet human love and despair are plumbed to their harrowing depths. Those who listen, respond, and are attentive fall in love with Le vin herbé itself: its fans tend to be vehement in the expression of their love and loyalty to this great score. Recently, however, it has been performed with success as a chamber opera, just as there have been staged, or semi-staged, productions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

MR: What are some of the most difficult and challenging aspects of The Love Potion in terms of its staging?  How did the directors tackled them in the past? 

BA: The most challenging aspect of staging Le vin herbé is its interiority—its refusal to raise its voice or go after obvious effects. The title characters do not writhe about in the throes of ignoble passion. There is also the challenge that the protagonists are also part of the vocal ensemble; Tristan and Isolde as well as other characters, such as Brangane, say, emerge and recede from the collective voice of the chorus. Another difficulty is posed by the eerie distance created by the conception; it is as distant as the chronicles of the Middle Ages and as contemporary—or, perhaps, timeless—as yesterday. The opening and closing choruses, which address the “Lords” listening to the tale, place the action of Le vin herbé within a mysterious framework, as we, the listeners and viewers, are those very viewers, both the lords and ladies of olden times and yet possessing our own contemporaneous existence. Le vin herbé exists both in and out of time. However, the score is so rich, so subtle, so moving that it is well-suited indeed for staging. I am very glad that this masterpiece is now making its way onto the stage!

Thursday, November 20, 2014


By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

"Tristan und Isolde" by Rogelio de Egusquiza (1915)
“Liebestod” is the title of the final dramatic musical piece from Richard Wagner’s 1859 opera, Tristan und Isolde, but the word itself also means the theme of “love death” prevalent in art, drama, and literature. Liebestod (from the German Liebe, meaning "love," and Tod, meaning "death") defines the lovers’ consummation of their love in death or after death. Connecting la petite and la grande mort, the Liebestod represents love as an eternal force that conquers death and survives lovers’ corporeal bodies. The theme of Liebestod often involves the double suicide of lovers who cannot live without each other and who die of despair over the death of the other.

In his book Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont notes that “a myth [of love death] is needed to express the dark and unmentionable fact that passion is linked with death, and involves the destruction of any one yielding himself up to it with all its strength” (21). Although Liebestod is one of the most enduring motives in the Western world, it is also a universal myth, found, for example, in the Japanese concept of Shinjū, the lovers’ “double suicide,” and the Hindu custom of “Sati,” a woman’s obligatory immolation at her husband’s funeral pyre.

In Western culture, the theme of love death is present in ancient mythology, starting with the Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Heartbroken by the death of his beloved wife, Eurydice, Orpheus descends into the underworld to retrieve her. On their way back to the world of the living, Orpheus turns back to look at Eurydice, which he was forbidden from doing, and Eurydice disappears. In despair, Orpheus returns to the world of the living alone. Only after his own death is Orpheus’ soul returned to the underworld and thus reunited with his beloved. In Greek drama, the theme of double suicide can be found in Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone’s fiancé, Hæmon, commits suicide upon finding her hanged body.

A full audio recording of Le Vin Herbé from the Wellesz Theatre.

In Roman mythology, the theme of love death appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, who are unable to wed due to their families’ feud. Separated by the wall between their connected houses, the lovers must whisper to each other. They manage to arrange a clandestine meeting, but upon arriving at the site of their rendezvous, Pyramus finds Thisbe’s bloody veil; heartbroken thinking she’s been killed by a lion, he kills himself by falling on his sword. Finding his dead body, Thisbe kills herself with the same sword.

Shakespeare alludes to the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe in two of his plays, the comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. In Midsummer, the story is awkwardly enacted by a group of actors, called “mechanicals,” in a scene that lightheartedly mocks the exalted nature of forbidden love. In Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the best-known story with the love death motive, the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe provides a blueprint for the ill-fated lovers who both also kill themselves, each thinking the other dead.

“How Sir Tristram Drank of the Love Drink”
by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)
The popular medieval legend of Tristan and Iseult, about two lovers separated by fate and united only after their deaths, is one of the better known examples of Liebestod. The story reappears in many works, including Thomas Hardy’s The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall at Tintagel in Lyonnesse, a one-act play published in 1923, and Rutland Boughton’s opera, The Queen of Cornwall (1924), based on Thomas Hardy’s play. Other famous retellings of the legend include Thomas Berger’s novel, Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel; Rosalind Miles’ trilogy, The Queen of the Western Isle, The Maid of the White Hands, and The Lady of the Sea; and Nancy McKenzie’s book, Prince of Dreams: A Tale of Tristan and Essylte. The myth is also referenced in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and in John Updike’s novel, Brazil, about the lovers Tristão and Isabel.

Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera, Tristan und Isolde is perhaps the most famous retelling of the legend. Considered one of the most influential pieces of music, the opera is based on the courtly romance by the 12th-century writer Gottfried von Straßburg. In both Straßburg's and Wagner’s versions, Tristan is a doomed romantic lover, idealistic and sensitive, and Isolde is a quintessential female of the 19th century, who redeems him. Wagner’s opera inspired a number of other musical works, including Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony (1949) and Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan (1975). Frank Martin’s chamber opera, Le Vin Herbé (The Love Potion), written between 1938 and 1940, is also influenced by Wagner’s version of the legend, although Martin’s version is based on Joseph Bédier’s 1900 text of the Tristan and Iseult story.

Wagner’s opera in many ways captured the 19th-century obsession with the theme of Liebestod, which saturated both low and high culture. As the scholar Rudolph Binion put it:

Physical love beyond death: this theme of 19th-century culture took many of its cues from folklore, where naïve belief about animate corpses survived and developed throughout the Christian era. [. . .] Premodern folk tales of sex beyond death were never voluptuous, only chilling. Modern elite culture turned that chilling into thrilling for an eager public, then backed away. Popular culture followed closely along until it took off on its own in our century. But wherever the shaky line between high and low culture is drawn, the love-death hybrid was bred above it. (97, 116)

"Tristram and Isolde" by John Waterhouse (1916)
The 19th-century theme of love death found its expression in vampire tales which survived into the 20th century, particularly in the early Hollywood cinema. In the 20th century, a number of writers and dramatists, including Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, Tennessee Williams and Georges Bataille, explored the theme of love death in their plays and novels. The lovers’ double death appears in movies like The Eternal Return (1943), Elvira Madigan (1967), and Pedro Almodóvar’s spoof of organismic love death, Matador (1986). Today, the theme of Liebestod can be found in vampire love stories and in some of the biggest blockbuster romance movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, Like Water for Chocolate, Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Brokeback Mountain.

Read more:
  • Binion, R. Love Beyond Death: The Anatomy of Myth in the Arts. New York: New York University Press, 1993.
  • Kramer, L. After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press,1997.
  • Legman, G. Love and Death. New York: Breaking Point, 1949.
  • Rougemont, D. Love in the Western World, Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Stilling, R. Love and Death in Renaissance Tragedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Love Potion – A SNEAK PEEK!

Excitement is mounting for BLO's production of The Love Potion, opening tomorrow, Wednesday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m.! Here's a special SNEAK PEEK at our final dress rehearsal, featuring sets designed by Jim Noone, costumes by Nancy Leary, and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

The Love Potion
Performed at Temple Ohabei Shalom, 1187 Beacon Street, Brookline
Music by Frank Martin
November 19-23, 2014
Learn more

Magic takes hold of Tristan (Jon Jurgens) and Isolt (Chelsea Basler).
Duke Hoël (David Cushing) and Brangain (Michelle Trainor) in background.

One of many “Greek chorus” moments in the production 
(Jon Jurgens, David Cushing and David McFerrin in foreground).

Isolt (Chelsea Basler) rages against her sense of honor that stands in opposition to her heart.

A spiritual “Greek chorus” moment in the production that builds upon the sacred space 
of Temple Ohabei Shalom.

Photos by Eric Antoniou, Boston Lyric Opera 2014.

DR. VON LYRIC – The Tristan Variations

Today, let's look at a few examples of how the story of Tristan and Isolde has been told across many genres of performance.

Tristan – Reduced

Tristan – The Musical

Tristan – Danced

Tristan – Another Opera

Tristan – For Orchestra

Tristan – The Film

Monday, November 17, 2014


By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

Tristan and Iseult, as depicted by 
Edmund Blair Leighton (1853–1922).
Written by Switzerland’s greatest composer, Frank Martin (1890–1974), in the late 1930s, Le Vin Herbé was initially conceived as a 30-minute piece in response to Robert Blum’s commission for his Züricher Madrigalchor. Wanting to distance himself from Wagner and his operatic version of the myth (and, thus, also from the Nazis, who glorified Wagner’s music), Martin based the story instead on Joseph Bédier’s 1900 philological novel, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Bédier’s work was intended for general, not scholarly, audiences, and it drew on diverse medieval sources. In a short note following Gaston Paris’s preface to the romance, Bédier himself described his text as “très composite” (quoted in Gallagher 426). Readable and succinct, Bédier’s version provided the perfect blueprint for Martin’s opera, offering an alternative storyline to Wagner’s. In her book, Eroticism and Death in Theatre and Performance, Karoline Gritzner notes that, “in the medieval novel, whose traces both Bédier and Martin follow, it is the love potion alone that awakens the love between Tristan and Isolde. This love does not already exist beforehand” (89). In this, Martin further departed from Wagner. “In Wagner, it is only the supposed death potion which makes possible the complete confession of love” (Gritzner 90).

This first, early version of the Le Vin Herbé (often called Part I) was titled Le Philtre, and it was first performed in concert version on April 16, 1940, by the Züricher Madrigalchor in Zürich, with Robert Blum conducting. The libretto focused on the love between Tristan and Iseult, steering away from the theme of death. Following the premiere of the first version, Martin decided to expand it further, and he included two more chapters of Bédier’s book (“La forêt du Morois” and “La mort”), which made the work fuller and more complex, while focusing on both the theme of love and the theme of death (Sealey). Martin finished the piece in 1941, and the first complete concert performance took place on March 28, 1942, at the same theatre, with Blum again conducting.

The staged premiere had to wait until August 15, 1948, in Salzburg (under the German title, Der Zaubertrank), conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, and with Julius Patzak as Tristan and Maria Cebotari as Isolt. Often called a “secular oratorio,” Le Vin Herbé has a musical score that resembles a chamber work, and the dramatic structure of a great Romantic opera. In writing the opera, Martin was also influenced, in addition to Bédier, by Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera by Claude Debussy, which was in turn based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play of the same title. Debussy’s opera premiered in Paris in 1902, and the music and story of a tragic love triangle made a great impression on Martin.

Since the premiere of Martin’s opera, its score has gained cult status. Ted Libbey, in The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music, tries to explain the appeal of Le Vin Herbé, as a transitional piece in Martin’s entire oeuvre:

The music of Martin’s maturity, from Le Vin Herbé onward, is marked by elegance of gesture, an extraordinary formal command, remarkable grace, energy, and lyricism. Its emotion is restrained yet intense, at times even haunting, its scoring economical yet sensuous, reflecting Martin’s keen ear for sonority. Few composers of the 20th century succeeded so well at writing music that was suave, expressive, and modern, and at the same time, utterly original. (465)

Although the opera is rarely performed, it has had a couple of memorable stagings. Twenty years after its premiere, in April 1961, Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé received its first New York performance by Hugh Ross and the Schola Cantorum. In 1982, Le Vin Herbé received three performances by the Park Lane Music Players, conducted by Simon Joly, and in 1993, another performance by the Netherlands Radio Choir and Chamber Orchestra under Bernhard Klee. In 1985, the opera was staged by New York Lyric Opera Company. The New York Times critic at that time, Bernard Holland, wrote, enchanted:

That Le Vin Herbé was absolutely gripping in this setting—filled with dignity, mystery and a simplicity born of true sophistication—goes without question, though I am still not sure exactly where the impressive beauties of this evening had their roots.

In 2010, Ardente Opera staged Martin’s masterpiece in Hawksmoor’s St. George’s Bloomsbury church. Martin Kettle of the Guardian wrote of Martin’s score:

The fact that Martin should write a medievalist Tristan for an orchestra of just eight players and a chorus of 12, plus tenor and soprano principals, is a powerfully defiant statement of his individuality. In operatic historical terms, it’s a bit like standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.

In 2013, the opera was staged at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater in Berlin. Opera News reviewed the production, commenting on Martin’s score:

The score, a key work for the composer’s mature style, shows the influence of serialism, but Martin never abandons the tonal. Martin’s self-avowed wish was to become a master of tonal chromaticism, and in Le Vin Herbé, he succeeded in concocting a harmonically dense potion that, for all its dissonances, also goes down easy. The music unfurls with a hypnotic, often chant-like urgency. This arresting score was exquisitely served by director Mitchell and the fine ensemble of singers and musicians assembled by the Staatsoper.

Read more: