There’s a festering tragedy you see coming and an unseen aftermath that looms palpably in Jules Massenet’s oft-performed 1892 French romantic ‘drame lyrique’ (lyric drama), Werther. In its 4-act episodic dramatisation that traverses the seasons, the prettier side of falling in love is as bare as the branches of winter’s trees.
|Ensemble in Opera Australia's 2019 production of Werther|
In Opera Australia’s current season of Elijah Moshinsky’s long lasting 30 year old production, the drama percolates with superbly tempered emotional substance. It hasn’t come out of storage for 10 years. Michael Yeargan’s stylish set looks fresh - a stylish blend of classic and contemporary with classy costumes by Sabina Myers and evocative lighting by Robert Bryan - but it’s in its execution by the glowing talents of its artists that make it particularly special.
Much relies on conductor Carlo Montanaro’s superlative attention in brewing Massenet’s musical soundscape of lush melodious textures and multi-faceted moods. The funereal tone of the first bars give way to sunny lyrical strings as Act 1’s summer scene opens at the Bailiff’s busy child-filled home. There and there on, the Opera Australia Orchestra supported the stage with refined and captivating musicianship, especially glowing and penetrating in Act 3’s orchestral intermezzo ("La nuit de Noël") as Charlotte, understanding that suicidal tragedy may follow, rushes off to Werther’s lonely abode.
|Michael Fabiano as Werther and|
Elena Maximova as Charlotte
Curiously, Charlotte and her family see something in this misery guts of a guy that the audience doesn’t - references are occasionally made indicating how his absence is missed. But, alongside Fabiano, Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova makes believable the circumstances in Charlotte’s own troubled affair, highlighting just how equally vulnerable both of them are. Maximova affectingly crosses crest after crest of broad emotional responses with her sumptuous-voiced, darkly drawn, religiously devout and duty-bound Charlotte. From earlier mannered dismissiveness, in Act 3’s Christmas Eve setting as she rereads Werther’s letters, the pain unfurls in swirling, magnificent voice in “Werther! Qui m'aurait dit ... Ces lettres!". When Werther unexpectedly shows up, the pair are inextricably locked in an unforgettable and deeply personalised scene that showcases opera’s indelible strength. And you can’t help but sympathise with her for being blamed by Werther’s repugnant declaration that she is the cause of his actions.
|Luke Gabbedy as Albert and|
Stacey Alleaume as Sophie
As Charlotte’s cheerful younger sister Sophie, Stacey Alleaume uses her sweet and sparkling soprano to great effect while balancing jollity with compassion and youthfulness with maturity. Smaller vocal roles eventually fade by Act 3 but Richard Anderson’s content and fatherly Bailiff and Nicholas Jones’ and Andrew Moran’s jovial, down to earth Schmidt and Johann adequately colour the edges. Individuality in character and radiantly unison are Charlotte and Sophie’s younger privileged siblings.
Much is mined in the direction of the core leads but a distracting awkwardness exists in the coming and goings of unknown friends. Not so in Moshinsky’s update which, while not necessarily reflecting our more progressive attitudes today, gives credibility to individuals and circumstances that reside in our times.
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 11th March 2019
Production Photos: Prudence Upton