Le Vin Herbe at Bristol Hippodrome

The Welsh National Opera come to the Hippodrome every year with their Spring Season tour of three different performances in three nights. This year it is La Boheme, Madame Butterfly and the much less well known Le Vin herbe.

Last night was the first night and I went to see Le Vin Herbe, which is the story of Tristan and Iseult, this version written in 1948 by Frank Martin. I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit of an opera novice; l’ve been lucky enough to see a couple of previous shows by the WNO and they’ve been fantastic. However they were also what could be described as ‘easily accessible’ for an opera newbie like me. I’m not sure I’d say that about this one. I can’t say I wasn’t warned though, an friend who knows about such things said ‘It won’t be easy listening’.

So what was it like? Well, the first thing is that the stage was bleak. There was no backdrop (we could even see the fire exit at the very back of the stage) and very, very little in the way of scenery or props. There was a small orchestra, consisting of string instruments and a piano, sat in the middle of the stage. Behind them was a platform consisting just of metal struts and steps. In front of them was a box on which the conductor stood, dominating the stage. There were some metal framed chairs, a large white sheet that made an appearance a couple of times, a couple of swords and cups were used and little else. The cast all wore black, apart from Iseult who changed from a white to a gold/beige dress during the performance. This was by far the most mimimalistic performance I’ve ever seen in a theatre. The lighting was clever and effective, but also very much simple white/warm effects, rather than colourful. So this performance was very, very much about the music.

I did enjoy the music, and the singing of the chorus in particular. But I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the whole thing as much as I have previous operas that I’ve been to. My friend was spot-on with her assessment, it wasn’t easy listening. There were no melodies I could get a handle on, no memorable Nessun Dorma type numbers. The Hippodrome wasn’t particularly full, which was actually quite nice and there was a very intimate atmosphere. Most of the people there seemed to be of the stereotypical opera-going type, of a certain age and class, although certainly there were others that didn’t fit the stereotype at all. There were also lots of people who were there on their own. As a whole the audience seemed very appreciative, and I don’t think there is anything I could fault about the show as a whole. I do think though that it’s not one for someone who is just learning about opera and testing the water.

There were, as you would expect from the WNO, a few voices that were spectacular and I enjoyed listening to Caitlin Hulcup as Iseult the Fair in particular. The chorus mourning Tristan was a shivers-down-the-spine thing, spectacularly beautiful. I am very glad I got to see this opera, and overall it was an enjoyable experience. However if I was seeking out something to go to or to recommend it would be something a lot more accessible, and I suspect the next two nights with La Boheme and Madame Butterfly will be a lot more appealing to the non-specialist audience. I have to say that I am also looking forward to the WNO’s next touring season which will include Die Fledermaus, described as an ‘hilarious story of mistaken identity full of splendour, posh frocks and masks’, which sounds much more jolly than tonight’s tragic story, and a lot likelier to appeal to a wider audience.


WNO’s La Boheme shows at Bristol Hippodrome 29/30 March and Madame Butterfly 31 March/1 April


Image by Robert Workman, with thanks

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