Katie Mitchell’s staging of Frank Martin’s “secular oratorio” Le Vin Herbé, which was one of last season’s highlights at the Staatsoper im Schiller Theater returns to the house for two more performances (Thurs. & Sat.)
Martin, a distinctive and unjustly neglected Swiss composer, wrote this 100-minute work in 1941, to a libretto based on Joseph Bédier’s “Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut” from 1900. Scored for a string septet, piano and a twelve person chorus, it is a work of startling economy and emotionality. The music unfurls with a hypnotic, often chant-like urgency. This arresting and, at times hypnotic, score is exquisitely served by director Mitchell and the fine ensemble of singers and musicians that the Staatsoper has assembled, which remains practically unchanged from last season.
At the time Anna Prohaska, one of the Staatsoper’s brightest young ensemble members, was a committed Iseut La Blonde. She dispatched her long-sustained phrases with a mesmerizing blend of resolve and fragility. As Tristan, tenor Matthias Klink projected a similar sense of frailty, combined with heroic yet legato-based phrasings, which were put to best use during his thrilling forest monologue.
Mitchell, who also furnished the company’s riveting production of Luigi Nono’s Al Gran Sole Carico D’Amore, sets the action during the period of the work’s composition. The minimal props, often used for various situations, include several ascetic-looking tables, chairs and beds. The men wear overcoats, fedoras and vests. The women wear simple black dresses, fur coats and vintage hats. In short, it looks like a Terence Davies film. Mitchell is a highly detail-oriented director and here she had the singers work constantly as stagehands, ritualistically setting up, lighting (with candles) and dismantling the individual scenes. An example: during the constant sea-voyages, a swaying Iseut grips a slack rope while another singer fans her with a wooden board to represent her hair blowing in the wind.