Opera North at Theatre Royal Nottingham – Werther

Werther – Drame lyrique in four acts (five tableaux) to a libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet & Georges Hartmann, after Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann von Goethe [sung in French]

Werther – Paul Nilon
Charlotte – Ann Taylor
The Magistrate – Donald Maxwell
Sophie – Fflur Wyn
Albert – Peter Savidge
Johann – Richard Burkhard
Kätchen – Nicola Unwin
Brühlmann – Paul Rendall
Karl – Charles Etchells
Frieda – Ebony Garbutt
Clara – Flora Grafton
Max – Matthew Hull
Gretel – Hannah Kilcoyne
Hans – James Micklethwaite

Opera North Chorus & Orchestra
Richard Farnes

Tom Cairns – Director
Hildegard Bechtler – Set designs
Amy Roberts – Costumes
Charles Balfour – Lighting

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 4 November, 2009
Venue: Theatre Royal, Nottingham

It is curious how the conjunction of operas can affect one’s view of them. Seeing Tom Cairn’s Opera North production of Massenet’s “Werther” (the company’s first since 1982), immediately after Tim Albery’s production of “Così fan tutte”, which played on the Enlightenment’s experimental zeal in all things including love, made one wonder how Don Alfonso would have dealt with poet Werther and his infatuation, first engaged and then married, with Charlotte. Perhaps, if Ferrando or Guglielmo had fallen for already married sisters, “Così fan tutte” may have been just as tragic as “Werther”.

What would most people do if they find that the person they have just met is already ‘spoken-for’? Surely one would cut one’s losses, not get in too deep and go and find somebody unfettered by such complications. Perhaps I am not a romantic and side more with Don ‘Enlightenment’ Alfonso than late 19th-century lovelorn reveries, so it was a surprise to learn (from Gerald Larner’s engrossing programme note) that Goethe’s original epistolary novel “Die Lieden des jungen Werthers” was based on two true stories.

Goethe himself fell in love with Charlotte Buff (already engaged to a man Goethe respected) at a ball in 1772 (he, obviously, got over it), while his Werther followed the path of an ambassador’s secretary who shot himself that same year with the borrowed pistols of the husband of the woman he loved. So much for Don Alfonso’s attempt at rationality in love! Moreover, Jan Verwoert’s programme note outlined “The Werther Cult” where affected (in every sense) youth adopted Werther’s dress – blue overcoat, yellow jerkin, leather trousers and long boots. And who says the Goth look was a recent phenomenon?

While the cynic in me baulked at the tale, there was much to enjoy in Tom Cairns’s production, aided and abetted by music director Richard Farnes and his excellent Opera North Orchestra. Massenet’s late-Romanticism is always interesting to listen to, especially with distinctive timbres such as the sparingly used saxophone. In the tragic final act, in which the anti-hero miraculously survives his self-shooting for an extended duet with Charlotte (who only at this point tells Werther she loves him), there is a hint of “Tristan und Isolde”, but for the most part Massenet keeps his own voice. Particularly notable was some fine horn-playing, typifying the orchestral ensemble.

Using photographs of rural communities as a frontispiece and then a backdrop to the action, Cairns has updated the action from Goethe’s 1772 to early 20th-century, with Sophie (a fresh-faced and fresh-voiced Fflur Wyn) taking photographs of her younger siblings being rehearsed in carols by their father (Donald Maxwell) – somewhat von Trapp-like. A couple of months later, the autumn sun shone out from behind the hazy trees in the backdrop as Massenet dissects Charlotte’s marriage to Albert as a contrast to the golden wedding celebrations of the pastor.

Jumping forward a further three months, Charlotte’s letter scene, reading over Werther’s copious correspondence to her (the only real nod to the nature of the original source). Here Ann Taylor’s Charlotte (replacing an ill Alice Coote) came into her own, making the emotional turmoil she is going through utterly believable. Both she and Paul Nilon’s anti-hero have the most idiomatic French as well; despite natural cynicism, it was possible to care for her!

  • Further performances: Nottingham on 7 November; then The Lowry, Salford (11 & 14 November); and Theatre Royal Newcastle (18 & 21 November)

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