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La Vin Herbe review at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff – ‘finely tuned performances’

The cast of Welsh National Opera's La Vin Herbe. Photo: Robert Workman
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The Swiss composer Frank Martin did not intend his secular oratorio based on the Tristan and Iseult myth – written in 1938-41 – to be staged. Even though like most of Martin’s neglected output, Le Vin Herbe remains infrequently performed, his preference for purely concert performances has regularly been ignored.

Polly Graham’s production for Welsh National Opera (whose artistic director David Pountney suggests that in English the title should be rendered as The Spiked Drink) could thus be seen as a betrayal of Martin’s intentions, especially given that a piece designed for just 12 voices is here sung by almost as many principals plus a chorus of 40.

Yet in many respects the performance is remarkably faithful to the restraint and reticence of a piece that is the direct opposite to Wagner’s far more famous and expressively extreme setting of more or less the same story.

Graham explains that she and her designers have set the piece in the empty shell of a theatre: conductor James Southall and his small ensemble are placed centre stage, though often hidden by the chorus; as narrators of the action, the latter’s contribution, meanwhile, is vital.

That the whole show – played without an interval – weaves a magical spell is testament not only to the sympathy and intelligence with which Graham has approached her task but to the excellence of the chorus as lynchpin and to Southall’s focused leadership of his instrumental team.

All the principal performances are memorable, with exceptional contributions from Howard Kirk as the betrayed, conflicted King Mark and Gareth Dafydd Morris as Tristan’s loyal friend Kaherdin. But the bulk of the evening’s burden falls on Tom Randle’s austere, troubled Tristan and Caitlin Hulcup’s eloquent Iseult, and they do not disappoint, their finely tuned performances perfectly matching the subtlety and discrimination of Martin’s delicate score.

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Beautifully judged staging of Frank Martin’s oratorio