La Bohème & Le Vin Herbé at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the star crossed Tristan and Iseult in Le Vin Herbé

Two Nights at the Opera: an accidental double bill.

Firstly, snaps to Welsh National Opera for offering £5 tickets to under-30s. Other institutions seem to think that once you’ve turned 26 – you’re suddenly in a position where you can afford to go from £5 to £25 average for tickets. (LOOKING AT YOU NATIONAL THEATRE). At 26 I was just finishing Uni, spending too much money on rent and sadly, culture wasn’t a priority. If the idea of these youth-subsidised tickets is to encourage new generations to patron the theatre, it would be better applied to 25-30 year olds. Once you really appreciate the benefit of an evening not spent drunk, theatre becomes so much more enticing. So kudos to WNO, for allowing pretentious, middle class millennials a cheap night at the opera. Thanks to some unfortunate double booking, I had to reschedule my nice Saturday evening La Bohème performance to a Wednesday night, with Le Vin Herbé Thursday.

La Bohème

Everyone with a passing interest in musical theatre should be aware of La Bohème – it shares basic plot elements with Jonathan Larson’s Rent (also on its way to WMC in April). Baz Luhrmann also directed this very bohemian opera in 1990 for Opera Australia that almost certainly inspired his own Moulin Rouge a decade later. When Rodolfo and Mimi are scuttling around looking for her key on the apartment floor in the moonlight – I had Light my Candle stuck in my head instead of Puccini’s rousing score.

The scene at Cafe Momus.

The scene at Cafe Momus.

It was a competent revival of Annabel Arden’s take on the Puccini piece, originally staged for the WNO in 2012. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ design was stark and cold. There was no rose tinting of the poverty of the bohemian quartet, highlighting the warmth and exuberance in the jolly second act jaunt to Café Momus. Of the main players, Gary Griffiths and Lauren Fagan’s Marcello and Musetto made a bigger impression than Rodolfo and Mimi. While her arias were delivered well, Marina Costa-Jackson presence is too strong to be convincingly dying of tuberculosis.

La Boheme WNO Wales Millennium Centre

Much has been said in the press about Manlio Benzi’s conducting, being a little unruly. I don’t confess to being familiar enough with Opera to really notice either way. I’m not entirely convinced that La Bohème itself really deserves it place in the revered opera canon. Iconic story aside, I didn’t really find any of the music that memorable. The most resonating part of the whole two hours was Mimi’s spot lit corpse, harshly spot lit, alone on the stage. Give me Rent any day.

Star crossed lovers Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and Mimi (Marina Costa Jackson) in WNO's La Bohème.

Star crossed lovers Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and Mimi (Marina Costa Jackson) in WNO’s La Bohème.

Le Vin Herbé

If La Bohème is possibly staged a bit too often, then Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé is definitely not stage often enough. Written between 1938-41, although it could easily be much more contemporary than that. Based on the same tale as Richard Wagner’s better-known take on the Tristan and Iseult story, but the similarities end there. This piece is a small and intimate, more oratorio than opera. Whether through budgetary constraint or artistic vision, this WNO revival has a stark staging. A bridge, with steps on either side, dominates the bare, black stage, with the few musicians assembled in front. This places the music and the performers at the forefront.

WNO's bare staging of Frank Martin's Le Vin Herbé.

WNO’s bare staging of Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé.

The story itself is as old as time itself, the ill-fated lovers with tragic ends. The Vin herbé of the title is the love potion that sets the tragedy in motion. The libretto is sung mostly by the chorus – and in English. I’m in two minds about an English libretto, at once easy to just listen and not be distracted reading the surtitles. It can also sound clunky, with clichéd phrasing becoming more apparent when you understand the language.

Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the star crossed Tristan and Iseult in Le Vin Herbé

Tom Randle and Caitlin Hulcup as the ill fated Tristan and Iseult in Le Vin Herbé

Le Vin Herbé was a wonderful listen, particularly Caitlin Hulcup’s Irish princess Iseult whose strong mezzo range handled the challenging role with ease. Her entrance astride the bridge, in contrast to the black clad cast. Conducting Martin’s dramatic composition was James Southall who did a brilliantly energetic job. There were also moments of beauty in April Dalton’s simple staging and set design. A huge white sheet dropped from above stage at a pertinent moment. The large chorus laying candles at Iseult’s body, one by one – it was moving stuff.

Caitlin Hulcup's invigorating Iseult as the tragedy builds.

Caitlin Hulcup’s invigorating performance as Iseult as the tragedy builds.

I’d assumed that this was going to be a more intimate production, having read about previous stagings. I wondered how they were going to adapt Martin’s intimate oratorio for the large Donald Gordon auditorium, made even more massive by the bare staging. The answer was by expanding the chorus. I’m not entirely convinced by this, there were at times too many bodies on the stage, or unnecessarily wandering through the audience (not singing, so I didn’t glean the intentions). It made the scene changes a little overlong in a concise, interval-less production. That said, it was a brave choice for WNO to stage such an unknown piece, and it seemed to sell reasonably well for a Thursday night performance. If the strong reviews from National press are anything to go by, Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé will deservedly emerge from the obscure. It was a real treat of an evening.

So a double bill of opera turned into a great showcase for Welsh National Opera, with two very different productions and two starkly different viewpoints on them.

La Bohème is touring until 28th April, Le Vin Herbé is touring until the 25th April. For more info, go to the Welsh National Opera website.


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