Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A festering drama alive with two powerful leads percolates in Opera Autralia's Werther in Sydney

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
Loosely based on Goethe’s popular novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, a whirlwind of emotion grips the poet Werther when he escorts Charlotte, the daughter of the Bailiff, to a party. Charlotte swoons under his charms and momentarily forgets she is engaged to Albert, the good man she promised her deceased mother to marry. It doesn’t bode well and, though a degree of structural clumsiness pinches the plot, Massenet and his trio of librettists (Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann) deftly illuminate love’s circumstantial uniqueness and repercussions, how it can intoxicate with pleasure, cloud rationality, play with vulnerabilities and drive the agonised over the edge. 

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
It was in the grip of two unassailable leads, however, that the greatest impact was left. What I’ve seen of American tenor Michael Fabiano to date was eclipsed by a committed debut performance that fused character and voice in an exciting combination of genuine and compelling force. Fabiano brought kaleidoscopic colour and intensely wrought passion to Werther’s pitiful melancholic presence. Despite an early overheating of phrases, Werther’s wandering poetic introspection is captured with remarkably seductive tremolo in his Act 1 opening aria, “O Nature, pleine de grâce". In Act 2, Fabiano lifts the anguish of an inconsolable heart as Werther’s state of mind uncouples and he contemplates suicide with seesawing volcanic and delicate vocal power through “Lorsque l'enfant revient d'un voyage". Urgency and dementedness are thrillingly displayed in Act 3 when Werther returns, understanding he has Charlotte’s heart but not her life to which "Pourquoi me réveiller?" is wrought with intent and longing. Finally, as he writhes from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Act 4, the demise is achingly felt before the last floated notes close one part of the tragedy. 

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
There’s much to admire in baritone Luke Gabbedy’s polished tone, robust and outwardly assured Albert, not so much in his character’s rather haughty insincerity. Gabbedy let’s you feel the threat Werther is for Albert, coming powerfully to the fore in one of Act 2’s vocal highlight as the two share a man-to-man exchange to which Albert gives condescending form. He’s much the same with Charlotte, now his wife for three months, adding much to her dilemma in feelings she is reluctant to express. 

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. 

Opera Australia 
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 11th March 2019

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

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