Love Potion Number Nein
Andreas Mitisek will soon be celebrating his twenty years at the helm of Long Beach Opera. In fact, next month there will be an evening devoted to highlights from many of his triumphs over the last two decades. He is a bona fide musical and theatrical visionary. So one wonders what attracted him to Frank Martin's The Love Potion, which is neither musically or dramatically compelling. Written as an oratorio, it doesn't appear that it's meant to be an opera. (Written in German, this was an English translation.)
Mr. Mitisek and Long Beach Opera have built their world-renowned reputations on new works and the discovery of neglected treasures from the past. Mr. Martin's 1942 opera does not fit into either category. Vocally, the score is in the 12-tone tradition (though the singers remain on "mono-tones" much of the time, while creeping up or down a half-note or so.) The small orchestral octet (conducted by Ben Makino), is much more interesting under all this and it's no wonder that Mr. Martin's most famous work is the strictly instrumental Petite symphonie concertante, (which this reviewer enjoyed while doing research). The chorus does offer a few moments of harmonies but they only serve as breaks from the non-melodic drone.
Based on the same source material as Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, The Love Potion is a story of kismet and catastrophe. The title characters accidentally drink a magic brew and fall madly in love - the kind of love, we're told, that also has "unending torment and even death." The program boasts that "what Richard Wagner does in five hours…Frank Martin does in under two," but doesn't mention that Mr. Martin has reduced everything to a kind of synopsis. The chorus - which functions as a Greek chorus without any kind of commentary, irony or passion - gives us the CliffsNotes version of the story, while the principal singers are stripped of all the killer Wagnerian duets and arias. Tenor Bernard Holocomb underplays Tristan, and soprano Jamie Chamberlin overacts Isolde, but both are just doing their best to bring the "poor Johnny one-note" show to life.
It's storytelling, but as if read from a book. The only theatricality is from the accomplished artistry of Mr. Mitisek (who directed and designed this production). His set is very simple; a row of chairs in front of a projection screen. (The chairs move, later becoming beds, etc.) The projections are evocative - some quite beautiful - and provide effective visuals to underline the locations of the action: palisades on an Irish coastline, a boiling sea, black sketches of leafless trees beneath a starry sky, etc. The "filmed" backgrounds were appropriate, too, since this production was presented at San Pedro's Warner Grand Theatre, one of the last Art Deco movie palaces.
Mr. Mitisek's most clever contribution is what he does with the chorus. Each chorus member holds a long wooden staff, and when they put their staves together, they create different stage pictures: the branches of trees, the oars of a ship, the rolling waves, etc. At one point they use their sticks to dramatically lower Tristan's head to the ground and raise it again as he lays mortally wounded.
While some may argue that Wagner can be "too much," Mr. Martin's opera is evidence that less is not more.