The night after going to hear Lady M of Mtsensk, I backed up to the opera theatre with D for Massenet’s Werther.

The novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther was Goethe’s breakthrough to fame, as in 1791 or so Werther-fever swept Europe. Werther is a rather introspective young Sturm-und-Drang proto-romantic communing with nature and mooning around (not in the modern sense) Charlotte, destined to marry and then married to another, older, man, Albert. As I recall the novel (which is in the form of letters from Werther to a friend and then an afternote recounting his death) Charlotte didn’t really give Werther all that much encouragement, and her domesticity (first as elder sister and then as mother) which seems to be part of what he is captivated by (it offers him the sense of belonging which he lacks) is exactly what precludes his having her. Moments of the novel I recall include a thunder storm at a party (where Charlotte and Werther exchange a reference to the S-u-D poet Klopstock – this is transposed to two other characters in the opera) and later reminiscences by W over enraptured reading with C of the (always suspected by Dr Johnson but not generally known to be fake) cod-archaic poems of Ossian. In the end, Werther borrows some pistols from Charlotte’s husband and kills himself. KobbĂ© in his opera guide quotes Thackeray:

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

That, as the poem previously relates, being how Werther had first encountered her.

The opera beefs up Charlotte’s part and provides the obligatory death scene and parting. I prefer the earlier acts, and particularly the moment (at the end of Act III) where Albert twigs to what’s going on.

I’ve seen this production before and I like it. Murray Black in the Australian complained that the updating robbed Charolotte’s adherence to respectability of much of its force, but as Thackeray’s poem suggests, that aspect of the story was always a bit laughable and I’m not convinced that it was a very serious aspect even of the opera as originally produced about a century later. The focus always seemed to me to be on that moody barely post-adolescent “Young Werther” with some necessary operatic shifting of the balance towards Charlotte.

It was a salutary experience to come to Massenet fresh from Shostakovich and to experience the orchestra’s change of style and personality overnight (though obviously not all the players were the same). The music is unutterably sweet, though it doesn’t remain as sweet as it starts (that’s part of the summer-to-winter plot). It’s French chocolate-box stuff: there is a saxophone as well as two cornets-a-piston. I’ll have to leave the question of why the saxophone never finally caught on in the orchestra for another day. For the second time this year I noticed the Australia Ensemble’s clarinettist, Catherine McCorkill, playing principal. I don’t know if she was just filling in for the individual night or for the whole run – she received special acknowledgement from the conductor at the end and deservedly so. I tried to find one particular excellent moment in the score by way of illustration, but I left it too late to find it. All it reminded me of was the variety and range and sheer energy of the orchestration.

The cast was:

Sophie Sarah Crane
Werther Aldo Di Toro
Schmidt – Stephen Smith
Albert – Andrew Schroeder
Le Bailli – Stephen Bennett
Johann – David Thelander
Charlotte – Michele Losier

There was also a children’s chorus (one of Charlotte’s younger brothers was rather heartlessly sent out to work as a paper boy in Act III) and a number of non-singing extras (no adult singing chorus), including a “model” with extraordinarily long legs.

The conductor was Emmanuel Plasson. He of course replaced Richard Hickox. That means that, had he still been with us, Hickox would have been conducting the seasons of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Werther at the same time. I know he loved what he did, but with the benefit of hindsight everyone must be asking if he took on too much.

Michele Losier, who replaced Pamela Helen Stephen, started off rather unprepossessingly (D even thought she might just be an acting supernumerary on her first stage appearance) but in fact that’s just part of the concept of the role. She had plenty in store for the big moments when they came. Aldo Di Toro was fine: I’ll be more than happy to hear him again. I particularly liked Andrew Schroeder, whom I think I last saw as the Count in Perth.

It’s also good to see Stephen Bennett on stage. I have heard that he was de-rostered by Simone Young – which if true goes to show that Hickox was not the only MD to have preferences and non-preferences. As a result (he took a day job in Canberra at the School of Music there) he seems to have made a leap straight to senior (or (yuk!) “elder”) parts, which seems a bit of a waste of his prime.

Sarah Crane as Sophie was a bit of a caricature, but I don’t think that is really her fault.

There were a lot of bicycles – all of them, for some strange reason, “Apollo”s.

This was the last night of Opera Australia’s 2009 Sydney summer season.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: