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Theatre review: Long Beach Opera’s The Love Potion

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Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
From left: Jamie Chamberlin (Isolde) and Bernard Holcomb (Tristan) in Long Beach Opera’s The Love Potion

If you’ve never been to an opera, you’re in luck. Long Beach Opera’s The Love Potion, with one more performance at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro on May 19, is an accessible production, sung in English with minimal flourish, but vocally and emotionally rich.

Written by Swiss composer Frank Martin as Le Vin Herbe in 1942 and translated into English by Hugh MacDonald, The Love Potion differs drastically from an earlier Wagner opera on the same story. Martin’s shorter, more ritualistic version is based on a 1900 novel by Joseph Bedier called Tristan and Iseult, which draws from a medieval French poem of two ill-fated lovers, which itself echoes an even older Celtic myth.

The Love Potion is thus a deeply rooted tale in which love and death are intertwined from the beginning and you are told how it’s going to end in the first scene. But that’s OK because the opera is really the staging of emotions. Through the vocals, you are plunged into the sharp-toned depths of illicit love, betrayal and loss.

Director Andreas Mitisek stages the production sparely so its music and feelings come to the fore. The small chamber orchestra, nimbly directed by Ben Makino, consists only of seven string instruments and a piano. Mitisek also designed video-projected backdrops that set the scenes, the most evocative of which are a night sky through forest trees and the roiling waves of an ocean during a storm.

Twelve singers in simple black costume form a chorus that sings the story, like in a Greek tragedy, using long sticks variously as ship oars, forest branches and swords. Synced with the rhythmic music, their stick choreography is mesmerizing.

The voices of the two lovers at the center of the story, Tristan (Bernard Holcomb) and Isolde (Jamie Chamberlin), will surely reach into your soul. Holcomb’s rich tenor and Chamberlin’s light soprano intermingle with the varied tones of the choir, making visceral what happens when a magical potion is imbibed by the wrong people at the wrong time.

The resulting drama is a heady brew of resonant feeling hung on a threadbare but haunting story. In fact, Tristan and Isolde spend much of the time prone due to the concoction, whether asleep on the ship after drinking the enchanted wine, or in the forest to which they escape, or later, when Tristan falls ill and Isolde must rush to his side through a storm.

Other characters that emerge from the choir— Isolde’s mother (alto Lindsay Patterson) who makes the wine, maid Branghien (soprano Alejandra Villareal Martinez) who gives it to the lovers, King Mark (baritone Bernardo Bermudez) to whom Isolde is betrothed, and even another Isolde, with White Hands (alto Kira Dills-DeSura), who feels betrayed and so betrays— movingly play their parts in this forgone-conclusion tragedy.
The Love Potion is thus a beguiling blend of emotional intensity and understandable though uncanny story, simply but engagingly staged. Its affective music and harmonic singing transcend even the timelessness of the tale.

The Love Potion will be performed at the Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro, Saturday, May 19, at 7:30pm. Tickets are $49-$150 (student rush available). For tickets and information, call (562) 470-7464 or visit longbeachopera.org.

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Theatre review: Long Beach Opera’s The Love Potion