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!

Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera blog (11/25/14).