About The Opera

Music by Frank Martin


Love Potion casts a haunting spell. Mitisek's austere production is like a mystical ritual that exists beyond time. -Chicago Tribune 

Haunting. Mystical. Eternal. The epic story of Tristan and Isolde is told through Martin’s mystical and haunting score. The fateful lovers meet by deception; fall in love by magic; and pursue their love in defiance of heavenly and earthly power.  They “loved each other, and at last, they died of that love together upon one day; she by him and he by her.” 


Le Vin Herbé (The Love Potion) premiered in 1942 and is based on The Romance of Tristan & Iseult, a retelling of the Tristan legend by historian and medievalist Joseph Bédier (published 1900). Martin uses 12 singers as both the soloists and as chorus, much in the manner of ancient Greek tragedy. A small ensemble of 7 strings and a piano support the mood and action of the drama. Martin fashioned a work in the greatest possible contrast to Richard Wagner's opera by using older text sources (including two Isoldes) and by creating an intimate chamber work with an medieval feel.

The Story of Tristan

Tristan and Iseult is a tale made popular during the 12th century through French medieval poetry, inspired by Celtic legend. It has become an influential romance and tragedy, retold in numerous sources with many variations. The tragic story is of the adulterous love between the Cornish knight Tristan (Tristram) and the Irish princess Iseult (Isolde, Yseult, etc.). The narrative predates and most likely influenced the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, and has had a substantial impact on Western art, the idea of romantic love, and literature since it first appeared in the 12th century. While the details of the story differ from one author to another, the overall plot structure remains much the same.

Frank Martin about Love Potion  

I truly found myself very late […] it was only towards the age of forty-five that I discovered my true language […] And I can say that my most personal output begins around the age of fifty. If I had died then, I could never have expressed myself in my true language. In the spring of 1938 I wasn’t working on any major composition, but I busied myself with the saga of Tristan and Isolde, […] when Robert Blum asked me to write a half-hour piece for twelve solo voices and a few instruments for his Madrigal Choir. I took another at the novel by Joseph Bedier and realized immediately that I could not find a better story for my purposes. I found that the chapter Le Philtre (The Potion) provided a complete narrative for the half hour commission.  The text  naturally separated into Solos and Ensembles. The instruments, when not accompanying the singers, are supposed to act like the scenery in a theater piece.

The text naturally divided into scenes, which called for a simple musical structure, […] After I finished, I decided to add two more parts: as the second La Fôret du Morois  (The Forest of Morois), where the lovers decide to part, and as the third La Mort (The Death) […]. I felt I needed more time to tell this tale of love and death. It seemed unavoidable that not only love is represented, but also death, bringing relief after all the ecstasy and dread of passion.

Frank Martin (1890-1974)

Martin was a Swiss composer who spent a majority of his life in the Netherlands. He studied composition and piano with Joseph Lauber, as well as mathematics and physics at the Geneva University. 

Active as a teacher and lecturer, he was also a pianist and harpsichordist and toured widely, performing his own music. Martin evolved a strong personal style that incorporated elements of German music, particularly that of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the expanded harmonies associated with early 20th-century French composers. His major works include Le Vin herbé (1942; "The Love Potion"), the opera Der Sturm (1956; "The Tempest"), the oratorio Golgotha (1949), and Requiem (1973). He also produced a large quantity of instrumental music, including orchestral works and chamber music.  He wrote two piano concertos, a harpsichord concerto, a violin concerto, a cello concerto, a concerto for seven wind instruments. Perhaps his best-known work is Petite symphonie concertante (1946).



1150 The Old French Estoire is the first mentioned version of the Tristan myth.

1165 Anglo Norman Thomas von Bretagne adapts Estoire into a chivalrous courtly version, emphasizing the love story.

1180 Eilhard von Oberge creates first German popular version of Estoire.

1190  Béroul creates a similar French manuscript Le Roman de Tristan.

1210 Gottfried von Strassburg creates Middle High German courtly romance Tristan. His work is regarded, alongside Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and the Nibelungenlied, as one of the great narrative masterpieces of the German Middle Ages.

1391 Popular Tristan stories are created all over Europe, often combined with the Arthurian Legend, (Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in 1470).

1785 Christian Heinrich Myller publishes a new edition of Gottfried’s Tristan and Isolde. Multiple medieval narratives are reprinted in Germany, England and France.

1813 Richard Wagner is born in Leipzig.

1844 First complete translation of Gottfried’s Tristan into High German of by Hermann Kurz.

1846 Robert Schumann considers composing a Tristan opera, but does not follow through. Wagner hears from Schumann about his plans.

1864 Historian and medievalist Joseph Bédier is born in Paris.

1865 Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is premiere in Munich. Wagner was familiar with Gottfried’s work and other contemporary adaptations. Wagner libretto emphases the love potion, the discovery and Liebestod (love death).

1890  Frank Théodore Martin is born in Geneva as the youngest of ten children.  

1900 Bédier’s Roman de Tristan et Iseult is published. Starting with Bédier the focus turns now to old French versions such as Béroul (1190) and Eilhard (1180).

1938 Martin reads Joseph Bédier’s Tristan, receives a commission for a 30 minute work and sets one chapter of Bédier’s work to music for the Zurich Madrigal Choir.

1939  On September 1. Germans attack Poland, WWII starts. Frank Martins wife Irène Gardian dies.

1940 World premiere of Le Vin herbé in Zurich, Martin decides to extend the work with 2 additional chapters.

1942 The extended version of Le Vin herbé premieres in Zurich.

1948 Premiere and first staged version of Le Vin herbé at the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay.

1961 Le Vin herbé is recorded with Frank Martin at the piano and Victor Desarzens as conductor.  

1974 Frank Martin dies on November 21st at the age of 84 in Naarden, Holland. 


Part 1
The opera begins with Tristan as he retrieves the reluctant Isolde so that she may marry his uncle, King Mark. Isolde's mother has brewed a love potion meant for King Mark to fall in love with her daughter. Tristan and Isolde mistakenly drink the potion when their maid confuses it for wine and they fall irrevocably in love.

Part 2
King Mark discovers Tristan and Isolde's love and declares vengeance. The lovers are able to escape the King and flee to the forest where they are quickly discovered. King Mark spares them from death with the vow that they remain apart and pure.

Part 3
Following orders, the lovers remain apart and Tristan marries Isolde of the White Hands. Wounded during a battle, Tristan asks his friend Kahedin to bring his first love, Isolde, back to him but his wife is unhappy with his desire and tricks the unlucky lovers. 



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