Thursday, April 27, 2017

A clearly devised concept with mixed results in fledgling BK Opera's Werther in Melbourne

Another small opera company popped up on the scene in Melbourne last year to provide valuable performance opportunities for the city's enthusiastic band of singers. Great news for opera! Actually, I'm not entirely convinced. It seems to me that opera in the city needs to start focusing on building up and not out.

"No sets. No props. No microphones. Just beautiful music and amazing singers". It sounds like concert opera. That's newcomer BK Opera's catchphrase for presenting "bare bones" opera to Melbourne audiences but their new production of Massenet's Werther, with minimal cuts, doesn't really come as bare as all that.

Allegra Giagu as Charlotte and Patrick MacDevitt as Werther
Director Kate Millet and conductor James Penn's interpretation - that this is a story not about 'dying for love' but dying from undiagnosed depression and that the poet Werther may still have taken his own life even if Charlotte had married him - is spot on.

Millet brings this clearly devised concept to the table and it's smartly groomed with a serviceable performance area, a few props - a portrait of the newly reigning young Queen Elizabeth centred over two solid armchairs and a side table with lamp, telephone and record player - with some stylish post-WWII costumes that add immensely to the effect. We're in England and, though sung in French, the idea works well, thankfully with the help of English surtitles (compliments of Lyric Opera of Melbourne). The cast, when not 'on set', rested at trestles on the hall's perimeter - a good touch that reinforced the up-close nature of the production.

But, as appealingly grafted the aesthetic is with the venue, a combination of singers misgauging comfortable audio levels, together with Abbotsford Masonic Hall's low-level acoustic sophistication and rehearsal room-like atmosphere, hindered the overall experience.

A few old vinyl tracks play before the boisterous Le Bailli (Samuel Thomas-Holland), and his friends Johann (Joshua Erdelyi-Götz) and Schmidt (Steve Carolane) arrive in an atmosphere the antithesis of gloom that pervades the work - a jolly trio initially held back by a lack of tuning into each other but rectifying this by their final attractively sung and aptly restrained "Noël! Jésus vient de naître".

In 'normalising' the difficult and tragic foreground of Werther's and Charlotte's more introspective portrayal and subsequent loss, contrasts are worked further with the innocent and bubbly Sophie, crisply and sweetly sung by April Foster and Charlotte's betrothed and grounded Albert, firmly, warmly and handsomely sung by Finn Gilheany.

Patrick MacDevitt as Werther and Finn Gilheany as Albert
As the titular character, however, it seemed our dishevelled Werther, Patrick MacDevitt, was never going to escape from the sickly pain that consumed his whole being. Truckloads of ardency in vocal thrust and persistent downcast frowns weren't converting into a convincing picture. MacDevitt, who understudied the role for Lyric's Werther in 2014, has a striking and large tenor. There is warmth and pliancy to be discovered in the voice but, here, it was heavily sacrificed for unrelenting power, making it hard to invest sympathy in his character's two-dimensional desperate obsession.

In wide contrast, dressed in mourning black, the richly centred and emotively well-calibrated mezzo-soprano, Allegra Giagu, mixed radiance with elegance and poise as Charlotte. In a woman she effortlessly showed as kind and dutiful, troubled and empathetic, Giagu's Charlotte also portrayed a love for Werther that felt real despite the picture of incompatibility. In Act III's opening aria, "Werther! Qui m'aurait dit ... Ces lettres!", in which she dolefully reads over Werther's letters, Giagu dug deep with heartfelt voice on every rise and fall and effected a quivering vibrato that mirrored a crushed inner soul - a performance highlight.

At the side, as conductor, Penn's broad sweeps of the air lovingly shaped what could be gleaned from Massenet's score with only two musicians - Pam Christie attentive on piano and Grace Gilkerson providing excellent technique and essential lugubrious underpinning on cello arranged by Penn.

Just how well this new little boat fairs and finds its raison d'être within the existing scene is yet to be seen. BK Opera's Werther has much appeal but, at this stage, it feels as if it needs tweaking for its audience.

Masonic Hall
141 Gipps Street, Abbotsford
Until 7th May

Production photos: courtesy BK Opera

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