- Greggory Moore
By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
There’s a curious juxtaposition at the heart of The Love Potion. Based on a modern (1900) retelling of the medieval (12th century) romance, Tristan and Isolde, Frank Martin’s chamber opera isn’t anchored to any particular tradition. The text sounds archaic, while the music is typical of minimalist mid-century tonality. And, with a sparse staging more typical of college productions than dedicated opera companies, Long Beach Opera leaves this dichotomy on full display.
Whether the dichotomy itself is a problem is an open question. What’s beyond debate is that Martin’s libretto sounds old, like Beowulf old, and that it’s heavily redundant. (I can’t tell you exactly how often we hear that Tristan and Isolde will love each other for evermore, that their love dooms them, etc., but I can safely say: many, many times.) Although clearly this is by design, in a piece that has explicit aspirations toward being a timeless statement on love — a subject on which it doesn’t offer much insight — it’s probably a bad thing for the audience to be put in, given the dated and staid language.
Then again, most opera lovers don’t get too hung up on the text. It’s the music that matters. On that count, things are more straightforward. But perhaps too straightforward. Martin’s score is short on dynamic variation. The entire piece feels like one long ocean journey (somewhat fitting, since maybe one-third of the opera takes place on the high seas). We encounter swells, doldrums and the occasional gale, but we never really land on solid ground. The net result is peaceful or soporific, depending on your taste, but rarely too engaging.
That’s no real fault of the performers. Bernard Holcomb and especially Jamie Chamberlin do yeoman’s work as the doomed lovers. The Love Potion is short on arias or really any signature moments, so the pair has to establish themselves and their connection by way of a certain constancy, an invariance, a sort of hypnotic co-presence that persists even when they’re apart. This they do. The rest of the cast is solid, including the small chorus, which to my mind gets the most interesting vocals via a capella phrasings that often end short passages.
On the other hand, the production’s aesthetic must take a share of blame for the lack of engagement. I don’t especially mind everyone’s being in black (with the occasional shawl draped here or there), but I do wonder why all we get for a stage are a few chairs and a generic video backdrop (exactly the same style used for Long Beach Opera’s last production). For a piece with so little movement musically, textually, thematically, it seems misguided to double down on stasis. Yet, clearly this was director Andreas Mitisek’s conscious choice, right down to the stately blocking.
For the aficionado and neophyte alike, one of the greatest attractions opera offers is spectacle. By composition and presentation, however, Long Beach Opera’s current production does anything but. Adrift between opera and chamber music, The Love Potion never really comes to port and establishes itself. That may be fine if the score really hits home for you; otherwise, you’re unlikely to take away anything from this journey.
The Love Potion will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on May 19.
Cost: $49 to $150; student rush tickets $15
Details: (562) 432-5934; LongBeachOpera.org
Venue: Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro