Writer: Jules Massenet
Conductor: Richard Farnes
Director: Tom Cairns
Reviewer: Ian Cain
For an opera novice, such as myself, Jules Massenet’s ‘Werther’ is the perfect introductory piece. The plot is remarkably uncomplicated, there are no complex sub-plots to try to keep track of and, although it is performed in French, there are English titles provided on screens at each side of the stage. What could be easier or more patron-friendly?
A rarely performed opera, ‘Werther’ is based upon Goethe’s novel, ‘The Sorrows of the Young Werther’ and beautifully staged in a new production, directed by Tom Cairns for Opera North. The story unfolds in an idyllic, pastoral village during the summer. Charlotte (Alice Coote), the eldest daughter of the local magistrate (Donald Maxwell), promised her dying mother that she would raise her brothers and sisters, look after her ageing father, and take charge of the running of the house. Before her untimely death, Charlotte’s mother also found time to indulge in a spot of match-making and has betrothed her daughter to Albert (Peter Savidge) – well, you know what mother’s are like!
Enter Werther (Paul Nilon), an outsider with an impressive reputation and promising prospects, who has been asked by the magistrate to accompany Charlotte to the local ball because Albert is away on business. The pair develop an attraction to each other immediately, but Charlotte reveals that she is to marry Albert upon his return. Werther is devastated.
After a brief interlude to allow for a change of scene, Act Two is set during the autumn. Albert and Charlotte are now married, and in a private moment during the local Pastor’s golden wedding anniversary, he asks her if she is happy. Overhearing this conversation, Werther’s despair deepens at the thought that Charlotte might have been his.
Rather smugly, Albert tells Werther that he understands how lucky he is and how his good fortune is also Werther’s bad luck. Graciously, Werther reassures Albert that his feelings for Charlotte are now strictly platonic, yet he still seeks out Charlotte in an attempt to force her to reveal her true feelings for him. Bound by her overwhelming sense of duty, Charlotte refuses and asks Werther to go away for a while and return at Christmas, believing that the separation will allow them to get over one another. Werther leaves, vowing never to return.
Act Four picks up the story on Christmas Eve. With Albert away again, Charlotte is poring over letters that she has received from Werther during his absence. Her sister, Sophie (Fflur Wyn) visits and is concerned at Charlotte’s distress and persuades her to join the rest of the family for Christmas. After Sophie leaves, Werther returns, pleading Charlotte to confess her love but she resists him once more and he leaves. Shortly after, Albert returns home and demands to know if Werther has visited Charlotte. She is spared having to answer by the interruption of a servant who brings a letter from Werther, asking to borrow Albert’s gun.Charlotte races from the house, hoping to reach Werther in time to declare her love for him and prevent him from taking his life and the story soon reaches its dramatic climax.
‘Werther’ is a stunning piece with much to applaud. Although the dialogue plunges deeply and unashamedly into the realms of hyperbole, it is beautifully poetic and littered with glorious similes and metaphors. The performances are of the highest standard, particularly those of Paul Nilon (playing the title role) and Alice Coote (Charlotte). Indeed, it is difficult to believe that Miss Coote has only recently recovered from a bout of swine flu. It certainly did not show in her performance.
The huge orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes, sprawls out of the pit and occupies a substantial portion of the stalls, adding to the dramatic impact considerably.Hildegard Bechtler has designed settings that are stunningly simplistic, yet extremely effective and they are exquisitely lit by Charles Balfour. ‘Werther’ is an engaging story of star-crossed lovers that I cannot recommend strongly enough. I loved it!