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Frank Martin's Le Vin herbe

From Wales Millennium Centre, a Welsh National Opera performance of Frank Martin's opera Le Vin herbe, starring Catilin Hulcup, Tom Randle and Catherine Wyn-Rogers.

From the Wales Millennium Centre, a story of love as Welsh National Opera perform Frank Martin's rarity Le Vin herbé. Considered to be more of an oratorio, Martin described it as his first major work in which he spoke his own language, a synthesis of French tonal music and Schoenberg's 12-tone technique. Le Vin herbé started life as a thirty minute oratorio setting words from Joseph Bédier's Roman de Tristan et Iseut. Martin later added two further scenes from Bédier's novel, where in this new form it was premiered in 1942 on the concert platform in Zurich to great success. Many performances followed around Europe and in 1948, Le Vin herbé received its first staged performance in Salzburg. Martin remained unconvinced about staging this work, but in the 1950s it was quickly taken up by opera houses and translated into other languages.

Le Vin herbé is in three parts, framed with a Prologue and an Epilogue. It is a tale of love and death, but one that is not overtly theatrical; a far cry musically from Wagner's interpretation in Tristan und Isolde. In this performance James Southall conducts the Welsh National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, who are joined by the soloists Caitlin Hulcup, Tom Randle and Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Andrew McGregor presents this opera, and is joined by Nigel Simeone to discuss this haunting and concentrated work about love.

Le Vin herbé
Iseult ..... Caitlin Hulcup (mezzo soprano)
Tristan ..... Tom Randle (tenor)
Iseult's mother & narrator ..... Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo soprano)
Brangien ..... Rosie Hay (soprano)
Iseult of the White Hands ..... Sian Meinir (mezzo soprano)
King Mark of Cornwall & narrator ..... Howard Kirk (tenor)
Kaherdin ..... Gareth Dafydd Morris (tenor)
Duke Hoël & narrator ..... Stephen Wells (bass)
Narrator ..... Anitra Blaxhall (soprano)
Narrator ..... Rosie Hay (soprano)
Narrator ..... Sarah Pope (soprano)
Narrator ..... Joe Roche (tenor)
Welsh National Opera Chorus
Members of Welsh National Opera Orchestra
James Southall, conductor

Produced by Luke Whitlock.

2 hours, 15 minutes

Music Played

  • Frank Martin

    Le Vin herbé

    Performer: Rosie Hay. Performer: Howard Kirk. Performer: Stephan Wells. Performer: Gareth Dafydd Morris. Performer: Sian Meinir. Conductor: James Southall. Director: Polly Graham. Singer: Catherine Wyn‐Rogers. Singer: Caitlin Hulcup. Singer: Tom Randle. Orchestra: English National Opera Orchestra. Choir: Welsh National Opera Chorus.


Storytellers invite us to hear the story of Tristan and Iseult.


 As the knights of Cornwall prepare to take Iseult the Fair, Princess of Ireland, back with them to Cornwall, to marry Mark, their King, her mother concocts a magic potion in secret. She instructs Iseult’s companion, Brangien, to keep the potion hidden until Iseult’s wedding night, when she must pour it into a bridal cup for the newlyweds to drink together. It has the power to make those who drink it fall deeply in love.

 The ship sets sail from Ireland. Iseult is angry with Tristan, King Mark’s nephew for killing Morold, her fiancé, and for taking her away from her homeland. Iseult curses the ship and her fate: she would rather die in her own land than live in the land of King Mark.

 The wind drops and the sun blazes down. Tristan gives the order to land and the crew goes ashore. Finding themselves thirsty, Iseult and Tristan call for a drink. Iseult’s young maid mistakenly gives them the magic potion thinking it is wine; they drink and fall hopelessly in love. As the ship continues its journey to Cornwall, Tristan realises that he loves the future wife of his uncle and foster father, King Mark. He and Iseult are tormented by their unspoken love for one another. Brangien warns them they have drunk their ‘love and death’ in the potion, but she knows it is too late – the lovers are too deeply involved to turn back. Tristan and Iseult surrender to their passion.


Iseult has been married to King Mark and made Queen, but the love affair with Tristan has continued. On discovering this, King Mark has imprisoned them both. Tristan escapes and rescues Iseult and together they find refuge in the forest of Morois with their companion, Gorvenal.

 A vengeful King Mark finds Tristan and Iseult lying asleep and is about to kill them when he sees an unsheathed sword lying between their sleeping bodies, keeping them apart. He decides to spare them and leaves his own sword behind as a sign that he chose to be merciful.

 Tristan is sent into conflict by this sign. He remembers all that King Mark has done for him, and regrets his exile. Both Tristan and Iseult feel guilty at their betrayal of King Mark. They resolve to leave the forest; Iseult will return to the King and Tristan will go into exile, to his home country of Brittany

Tristan wanders for years, convinced that Iseult has forgotten him. He helps Duke Hoël of Brittany fight a war with the Kingdom of Nantes. Duke Hoël summons Tristan and, in thanks for saving the country gives him his daughter, Iseult of the White Hands, as wife.

Fatally injured in battle, Tristan longs to see Iseult the Fair once more. Iseult of the White Hands overhears him asking his friend, Kaherdin, to take a ring to Iseult the Fair as a token of his enduring love and to beg her to come to him. He instructs Kaherdin to take his best ship and, on return, to display a white sail if Iseult is with him, a black sail if not.

Iseult the Fair returns with Kaherdin but their ship is becalmed. The dying Tristan thinks that she has refused to come to him. Iseult of the White Hands sees the ship approaching, flying a white sail, but lies to Tristan, telling him that the sail is black. Hearing this, Tristan dies. Coming ashore to find all the people mourning Tristan’s death, Iseult the Fair lies down and dies beside him. King Mark buries the lovers side by side. A briar springs up between the two coffins, growing back each time it is cut down.