A marvelous “Love Potion” by Chicago Opera Theater

A scene from Chicago Opera Theater's "The Love Potion."- Liz Lauren
A scene from Chicago Opera Theater’s “The Love Potion.”- Liz Lauren

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “The Love Potion”
Where: Music Box Theatre (3733 N. Southport)
When: Through Oct. 9
Contact: chicagooperatheater.org

Like a fine chocolate or a carefully calibrated watch, the Swiss are known for deliciousness and fine-tuning. Swiss composer brought these traits together in his delectable and sophisticatedly complex cantata “Le Vin Herbe.” Chicago Opera Theater is offering a staging of this exciting 1942 work under the English title “The Love Potion.” It is a version of the same story told by Wagner in his “Tristan und Isolde.”

“The Love Potion: is mounted here with economy: there are 12 singers in the ensemble and out of that troupe steps each individual character. In the pit there are seven strings and a piano.

The singing is generally very strong, led by Bernard Holcomb as Tristan. He is most effective in the quiet, contemplative moments. Lani Stait is a wonderful actor and draws out Isolde’s emotional highs and lows, but her singing is at times brittle.

Brittany Loewen’s Branghien is magnificent and her anguish when the love potion is taken by the wrong couple (it was intended for Isolde and her betrothed, King Mark) is one of the highlights of the show. The King is played with both authority and dignity and Nicholas Davis sings this role with gusto. Zacharias Niedzwiecki brings a glorious bass sound to Hoel.

COT’s general director Andreas Mitisek is both stage director and production designer. The staging is simple and to the point with the set dressing as minimal as it comes, limited to straight back chairs, a few planks, and the love potion. In addition, each cast member is given a long, solid rod about eight feet long. While the constant wielding of 12 big sticks becomes cumbersome at times, they are often quite effective; the rods are used as oars, swords, trees and the like. One of the most visually evocative moments is during a battle where the sticks are the weapons and the lighting casts big shadows, creating a splendid heightening of tension.

Throughout the evening there is video projected against the back of the stage. This is tremendously effective and a welcome part of the production. Chicago Opera Theater has previously made use of video in their operas and is well ahead of the curve in the use of this medium which, when used artfully, can spectacularly enhance a performance.

Costumes appear to have come right off the rack. Every member of the cast is dressed in black trousers and white smocks, with the latter hanging very loosely on slender singers and rather too tightly on the larger singers. When ensemble members take on particular roles they add a scarf or vest or some such to create an individual look.

The work is sung in an English translation by Hugh MacDonald, which for the most part makes the story easily understandable. But occasionally the English lines don’t match the music lines particularly well. More problematic, MacDonald has often chosen to translate “mon ami” as “my friend.” This results in some awkwardness, as the French phrase is more elastic and expansive and can refer to, for example, girlfriend. To hear star-crossed lovers in the most heartbreaking of situations refer to each other as merely friend seems nothing short of odd.

The pit ensemble is led with great effectiveness by Emanuele Andrizzi. Martin gives the ensemble some beautiful music and strings are more than up to the task. Sheldon Miller on piano does an exciting job with some of the notably frenetic music.

The performance takes place at the Music Box Theater, a Lakeview movie house nearly 90 years old. You can feel its creaky age but the acoustics are great.