In their most ambitious presentation to date, Lyric Opera of Melbourne treats local audiences to the all-too-rarely-seen Werther.
While the prospect of a full-length opera in the confines of Chapel off Chapel seems almost too daunting, the tight streamlined cast of seven (plus brief children’s chorus) proves a perfect fit. The intimacy then proves an advantage to this most human of tragedies, allowing strong, clear connections between singers and audience.
Massenet’s shimmering score features more than just beautiful melodies; there is an overall splendour to the flow of the phrases that creates a wonderfully pleasing whole. Conductor Pat Miller brings out the best in his orchestra of 16 musicians, lovingly shaping and guiding the playing with abounding passion and carefully considered attention to detail. Miller also provides firm and reassuring support for the young singers, who clearly appreciate his confident leadership.
While the decision to sing an opera in English often reveals the repetitive, even banal nature of the lyrics, Werther’s libretto proves to be a treasure, verging on the poetic. Diction is sufficiently good so as to avoid the need for surtitles.
In an interesting move, the opera’s action is moved to the present day, achieving mixed, but generally positive, results. There are cute touches, such as Werther arriving with the help of Google Maps, Sophie taking a selfie and Sophie reading Werther’s letters as emails on her laptop. The test of an update is always whether the morals and related actions make sense in the new context. The simple countryside location here means that the honour and marital ethics of the story make fair sense, effectively retaining the heart and spirit of the characters.
In a clever nod to traditional stagings costume designer Christina Logan-Bell has Werther and Sophie begin the opera in period costumes, which we soon realise, based on Schmidt and Johann being dressed as Batman and Robin, is because they are going to a costume party. Logan-Bell makes lovely use of colour to distinguish the acts and to show the progress of the seasons from summer to spring to winter. If there is a downside to the update, it is much of the finest music and scenes are played out in very ordinary modern day costumes, draining some of the grandeur from the piece.
Logan-Bell’s impressively constructed raised set is high enough to create a front orchestra pit, and provides varying levels and entrance points to aid the flow of drama.
In a show of restraint all too rare for this field, videographer Zoe Scoglio makes gentle, understated use of projections to establish each scene. With a higher budget, these projections would have looked marvellous on a full size rear screen. In a clever touch, at the climactic moment where the script calls for the return of children’s voices singing carols, footage is played of the children singing from the opening scene, which we saw Sophie film on her iPhone.
Director Suzanne Chaundy has assembled a fine cast, and has clearly focused on delivering the slightly melodramatic twists of the opera in a sincere, respectful and moving manner. The fact that the singers are close to the young ages of the characters is an asset. In keeping with this youthful vibe, Schmidt and Johann are moved to be friends the age of Charlotte rather than of her father, the Bailiff. While the overall concept is generally clear, the concept for the updated production perhaps some needed notes from the director in the program (it was mentioned briefly in the conductor’s notes).
Starring as dear Charlotte, Margaret Plummer provides a shining presence on stage, her wide, open face easily conveying Charlotte’s torment and gaining our affection and empathy. Massenet’s decision to write the heroine for a mezzo-soprano was a canny one indeed, allowing the character to appear more real and accessible to the audience. Plummer’s gorgeous voice rang out true and clear as she gave a sensitive, carefully measured performance.
One-time heavy metal singer Shanul Sharma makes an auspicious debut in the title role, his rather exciting tenor voice reaching any and all high notes with relative ease. Sharma appeared just a little stiff and ill at ease on stage, but this will surely fade away with experience. Sharma’s kind eyes and gentle nature suited the role of ardent, lovelorn poet Werther. His performance of well-known aria “Pourquoi me réveiller?” is a highpoint of the opera.
Together, Plummer and Sharma display tender chemistry that successfully portrays the central tragedy of the ill-fated love story.
Soprano Daniela Leska delights in the role of younger sister Charlotte, giving a fresh, entirely natural and engaging performance.
Baritone Bruce Raggatt gamely portrays Charlotte’s fiancé/husband Albert as a conservative, decidedly unappealing prospect. Experienced bass James Payne provides a mature, stable presence as patriarch Balliol.
Lively young singers Daniel Sinfeld and Bernard Leon provide some light relief as Johann and Schmidt.
A quick word about the extraordinary level of commercial and private sponsorship of non-subsidised productions such as Lyric Opera of Melbourne’s Werther: such generous support is truly and thankfully appreciated by arts lovers of Melbourne (and beyond). Opera lovers of Melbourne are encouraged to show their support by attending this entertaining and moving production.
Werther plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 26 October 2014.
Photos: Jodie Hutchison