Jules Massenet - Werther
English Touring Opera, 2015
Iain Farrington, Oliver Platt, Ed Ballard, Carolyn Dobbin, Lauren Zolezzi, Michael Druiett, Jeffrey Stewart, Simon Wallfisch
English Touring Opera, Buxton - 18 October 2015
Unlike many of Massenet's operas, Werther, the composer's ode to German Romanticism doesn't necessarily have to appear terribly old-fashioned. Which means of course that it doesn't have to be set in Goethe's period (the original story written in 1774) or around the time of Massenet's writing of the opera in 1887. There's a powerful universality to its theme of extreme passions that dominate the French operas in the English Touring Opera's Autumn 2015 programme, and accordingly, performing the work in English, director Oliver Platt sets this version in small-town America in the 1950s. Far from updating the work however, it still feels horribly dated and old-fashioned.
In fact, the production takes away considerably from the Romantic allure of the work, losing the period distance with which we can regard the over-heated emotions and declarations. The ETO's production has nothing to offer in its place, the small-town setting rather making it all look rather dull and domestic. Charlotte's father may get away with wearing baggy corduroys, a cardigan and smoke a pipe, but it doesn't really help that the others all dress in a similar 'square' manner. The ladies wear bright summer frocks, Arthur returns home in a GI uniform and transforms into Stanley Kowalski after his marriage to Charlotte. The weedy Werther meanwhile wears a suit and glasses looking like the local nerd. It's not a good look for a romantic-hero opera archetype, however overwrought, oversensitive and neurotic he might in reality be.
A little bit more of Tennessee Williams wouldn't have gone amiss in this setting actually. It's functional for the suppression of violent passions, but it lacks the kind of moodiness and threat of underlying violence that is needed to ramp up the melodrama for Werther. Actually, a better model for this Werther would be the garish Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk, but that wouldn't have fitted with the pared down arrangement of the work for piano, violin, cello and clarinet. With the musicians up on the stage in the background, Iain Farrington conducting from the piano, the understated delicacy of the playing at least matched the tone of the setting and the characterisation here in Oliver Platt's direction, but really, Werther doesn't benefit from understatement.
It doesn't need overstatement either - as Richard Eyre's overblown production for the Met demonstrated - but it needs the grand Romantic sweeps of Werther's love theme that surge up in those moments when he is with Charlotte, and take on an additional poignancy in his memory of them that becomes almost unbearable. Understatement is fine elsewhere, as it contrasts with the idealisation and the morbid inclinations of Werther that take on a gloomy and despairing weight and meaning of their own when detached from the reality.
Unfortunately Ed Ballard didn't give us a moody Romantic hero too sensitive to live in this cruel world without Charlotte. With the use of an English translation moreover - awkward scansion and not really any attempt to Americanise it - there was more of an air of petulance about this Werther. "Dash it all, this is very inconvenient!", was more the attitude that came across, Werther annoyed and mildly put-out that his plans to spend the rest of his life with Charlotte have run into the obstacle of Arthur's return. I don't think that Werther suited a baritone either. Jonas Kaufmann can certainly give the role the body and fullness of tone that approaches a baritone, but transposed this way it lacked the richness of colour and expression needed here.
There was strong singing from Lauren Zolezzi as a bright Sophie and Simon Wallfisch as Albert. Carolyn Dobbin as Charlotte and Ed Ballard were also fine, but the casting and the direction didn't do them any favours. They weren't able to bring any real conviction to their characters whose motivations and conflicts are much more important to the work as a whole. Werther is a work that requires a greater dynamic than this, and Massenet provides a strong musical equivalent to the Romantic heroism of the unlikely phenomenon created by Goethe. The English Touring Opera's production wasn't able to deliver that in its chamber arrangement or in the stage direction, and the actions consequently felt very old-fashioned, staged and remote from modern sensibilities.
Links: English Touring Opera