Lyric Opera: Werther

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Published: 27th October, 2014

It would seem that Lyric Opera is never daunted by a challenge. Once again, the company has shown that there are operatic gems that deserve to be heard more widely and that a small opera company is capable of presenting them with integrity. After a successful incursion into twentieth century operatic repertoire in the form of Copland’s The Tender Land, a decided change of pace presented itself in Massenet’s ultra Romantic grand opera, Werther.

Thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD production earlier this year, Jonas Kaufmann’s exemplary performance in the title role set a standard so high that any other attempts to personify Goethe’s tragic poet would seem to be as doomed as Werther himself. That this was not the case is a tribute to the musical and dramatic strength of Massenet and of Shanul Sharma, who, according to the director Suzanne Chaundy’s program note, “stepped in to take up the challenge of this incredibly demanding role at short notice”.

Sharma’s performance was convincing proof that difference can be an asset by illuminating different qualities in the role. Comparatively inexperienced as an operatic tenor, his voice is still developing, but he has a secure, ringing top. Becoming less dependent on cues from the highly dependable and totally committed conducting of Paul Miller over the two evenings I witnessed, Sharma’s ambition to sing leading roles from bel canto repertoire seem to be a realistic goal. His slightly quivering vibrato and somewhat old-fashioned use of portamento added to his appeal as a rather fey, ethereal character. As well as an unusual vocal quality, his gaunt appearance gave a fragility and pathos to his interpretation that was very much in keeping with the persona of a poet tormented by thwarted passion. His portrayal of ardent poetic sensibility, drawn to the charms of nature, the innocence of children and Charlotte’s empathetic warmth, was well projected and engaged the sympathies of the audience.

As the object of his adoration, Margaret Plummer was in glorious voice on both evenings. Charlotte’s music appeared to present her beautiful, creamy mezzo soprano with no vocal difficulties. Her musical security and ease on stage enabled her to immerse herself in the role of a woman torn between love and duty to a man more concerned with his business affairs than communication, a woman who finds a soul mate in Werther. In the final duet as Charlotte nurses his dying body and the longed-for kiss is bestowed, Plummer and Sharma gave an emotionally charged performance that captured the spirit of Massenet’s intensely Romantic music.

There might not have been the rolling and crashing of timpani at the climactic moment or the translucent string sound that larger forces can provide, but Pat Miller’s arrangement for his chamber sized orchestra was remarkably effective and particularly well suited to such an intimate venue. A band of excellent wind players doubled on instruments, moving from oboe to cor anglais, clarinet to saxophone (a Massenet innovation for opera) and flute to piccolo. Jacinta Dennett even managed to play the triangle and tambourine in addition to her superb contribution on the harp. Holly Piccoli’s assured leadership and lovely solo violin playing was part of some solid work from the strings. Reliable and varied in colour, Rachel Shaw’s French horn was a huge asset throughout. The use of the harmonium was quite inspired. Not only did it provide the necessary church music, Miller used it in discreet ways to add texture and depth to the orchestral sound.

The raised, tiered stage was a serviceable performance area. It also allowed the orchestra to be screened off from the audience and the sound to become more blended. A minimum of props made for easy transformation of scenes, which were mainly signalled by the use video footage projected on a screen at the back of the stage. Zoe Scoglio’s effective images as well as Lucy Birkenshaw’s lighting and Christina Logan-Bell’s costumes relied on colour to set the mood. Pinks, reds and oranges moved to greens and finally to greys.

The practice of placing opera that has been composed a century or two ago into a contemporary setting is fraught with difficulties, not all of which were overcome. The initial appearance of Werther and Charlotte in 19th century attire was used as a device to set them apart from the others. Although it was difficult to sustain this piece of symbolism for Werther, it made Charlotte’s capitulation to social expectation more telling. The use of a laptop as Werther’s means of communication was understandable but appeared incongruous. People still write real letters today after all, and sending an email somehow does not sit happily with Werther’s romantic character. The English text worked well for the most part, but do you “destroy” an email? At least he wasn’t texting.

“Werther” is far from being all storm and stress. Massenet is a subtle composer and undercuts some of the most passionate moments with touches of comic relief or irony. Broader comedy can be found in the antics of some of the secondary characters. The drunken escapades and Batman and Robin suits worn by the friends of Charlotte’s father, the Bailiff, made for some rather heavy-handed comedy, but Daniel Sinfield and Bernard Leon gave energetic performances. James Payne as the genial Bailiff and Bruce Raggatt as the affectionate but ultimately jealous and murderous Albert sang strongly and gave credible portrayals of their characters. Daniela Leske was a most attractive Sophie, providing a perfect foil for Plummer with her clear, vibrant voice and vivacious personality. Her translation into a sweet, heady, slightly vain modern teenager worked convincingly. As the younger sisters, the group of six girls sang well and added to the portrait of idyllic family life that so charmed Werther.

This may not have been Massenet at its most authentic, but in the final analysis it could be argued that his opera has been well served. Opera lovers have been given a rare opportunity to hear “Werther” in the flesh performed by gifted musicians and singers. What might have seemed an overly ambitious project has been justified by the quality of the performance. Goethe’s 18th century story of obsessive passion has been combined with Massenet’s 19th century musical imagination and Lyric Opera’s early 21st century realization to produce an experience to be applauded – as the stamping and cheering that greeted the end of these performances confirmed.

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Shanul Sharma as Werther and Margaret Plummer as Charlotte. Werther Act 1. Image by Jodie Hutchinson.