Review: Le Vin herbé, Wales Millennium Centre

Le Vin herbé, Thursday 16th February, Wales Millennium Centre, Reviewer: Ellie Philpotts

As students, ever-hungry for entertainment, and, well, actual food, it’s been drilled into our brains that saving the pennies where possible is a sensible thing to do. But so is cooking meals other than pasta; being raring to learn in those 9ams; and actually making it through a night out without ending up on Chippy Lane, and that’s never stopped us.

Sometimes, though, it’s well worth splashing out a bit more, and the Welsh National Opera is the perfect justification. Here in Cardiff, we’re fortunate to have been adopted by a stunning capital which boasts a seemingly infinite amount of culture, cuisine, art and scenery. So why not venture out of Cathays and get exploring – even if you never would’ve thought something like opera would be your cup of tea, you might be pleasantly surprised.

That summarises how I felt about my introduction to it last night. The iconic figure of Wales Millennium Centre asserts its dominance over the Bay, so since starting uni, it hasn’t taken much encouragement for me to visit. But La Vin Herbé was a brand new experience for both me and Cardiff (The Centre had the honour of hosting the opening night, kick-starting its tour which concludes on 25th April and reaches a range of venues from Bristol to Llandudno), and while it did alter my preconceptions of this style of performance, it in no way disappointed.

The Welsh National Opera, the country’s primary opera company also based in Cardiff Bay, have been adhering to their promise of ‘transforming the way you see the world’ more than ever lately, with other recent productions including La Bohème and Madame Butterfly. This time, however, they’re continuing their winning streak but deviating slightly in theme, as Le Vin herbè is a new perspective of renowned composer Wagner’s Tristan and Isolode, a tale which reached acclaim around 12th Century Anglo-Normal literature, borrowing palpable inspiration from Celtic legend. Much more recently, Frank Martin succeeded in making it equally enjoyed by contemporary audiences, meaning a smooth blend of modern quirks still slotted neatly into history.

The plot follows Iseult the Fair being taken across treacherous seas to wed King Mark of Cornwall, by Tristan, Mark’s nephew. Throughout the journey, she drinks a potion intended for her and Mark, which builds up to the intense love she shares with Tristan, and them abandoning all expectations in favour of setting up home remotely.

Although up to this point had already provided a hefty helping of drama, this was before the action of King Mark discovering them. His inner monologue of whether or not to commit murder made for gripping and emotive viewing. Heart and soul were poured into almost every scene, but for me this was worthy of being crowned the most powerful.

Without delving into precise detail, the denouement depicts Tristan’s death, and years’ worth of love for Iseult manifesting itself in a truly heartrending way. Traditionally most associated with love and death is Romeo and Juliet (which coincidentally is also being staged at Wales Millennium Centre this spring!), but this production presented it as a worthy contender.

Particular highlights of this viewing included its minimalistic staging, which included the sharp juxtaposition of the crew’s all-black outfits, against Iseult’s bright white gown; the immensely impressive music – whether instruments or vocals, the team lived up to the collectively responsibility that opera brings; and the dialogue being translated in both English and Welsh just above the stage.

All in all, Le Vin herbè’s prevailing theme of tragedy and romance was carried effectively by pathetic fallacy, which struck me as particularly poignant when the storm above the sea was in sync with the individual traumas experienced by the central characters.

This cast, who are from far across the globe (mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup, who took on one of the most challenging roles in the form of Iseult, is Australian), united beautifully, undoubtedly making Welsh National Opera very proud in the process.

by Ellie Philpotts