By Sasha Meaney
“A new world is revealed to me … everything delights me.” Werther sings as he enters the stage to which I found myself nodding in agreeance absolutely enthralled by everything in front of me. The Opera always feels like such an occasion and Opera Australia’s production of Werther lived up to my excitement.
Werther is a romantic Opera with music by 19th century French composer Jules Massenet. It was loosely based of the book “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774). The opera starts with Werther meeting Charlotte, who is engaged to marry Albert. His love for Charlotte is immediate and is tied up in the calmness of her home, and the youthful innocence of her seven younger siblings. Charlotte returns his love and is excited by his passion, but follows through with marrying Albert as per her mother’s dying wish. The agony of requited yet unfulfilled love is beautifully conveyed by Massenet’s music that is layered with lyrical and contrasting tones. The orchestra conducted by Carlo Montanaro, moves with precision between the dark and brooding, to the light melodies that herald youth and innocence.
Elijah Moshinksy’s production premiered in 1989 and in 2019 is co-directed by Constantine Costi. Thirty years have passed but the production still feels extraordinarily contemporary with new costuming by Sabina Myers. The design of this show is a stand out and overwhelmingly cinematic. The curtain rises on a white sheet covered stage, that in an amazing moment of theatre is sucked through a centered void to uncover the first set piece.
Charlotte’s home reminds me of a small slice of Chekhovian Bohemia. At the forefront is a strange room that appears both outdoors and indoors, with stately white entrances but a grassy carpet. At the back, through an entrance and a gauze like wall, is a sandy path, tall yellowed reeds and a high blue sky. The starting backdrop felt like a subtle nod to the original yellow pants and blue jacket of Werther, reportedly imitated by fans of his day. As the story progresses and becomes darker, so does the colour palette. The set changes, becoming gradually more and more stately and interior, inhibiting the psychology of its leading couple and the forces they are resisting.
When Michael Fabiano first appears as Werther is voice is filled with aching and moves overwhelmed by the multitude of life. But when he sees Charlotte, this intensity finds a place to focus. Fabianos’ voice strengthens - his notes soar through the audience, hit you right between the chest and leave a nervous fluttering in your stomach. Leaving the venue, audience members were in raptures about the power of his performance.
Werther is beautifully complemented by Elena Maximova as Charlotte. She plays Charlotte’s sense of duty and love for her family perfectly. As her life takes her further away from Werther her voice shows trembling soulful hurt but her technique remains well controlled and powerful. There were notes in her third act that were so delicate and hovering that they felt like they were just about to break and stop but then kept softly going. It was such a tease, and so filled with regret.
A personal favourite was Stacey Alleaume as Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister. Her character acting was all light and bite. Sophie’s defiant enthusiasm was so necessary to mediate between the energy of the youthful children and the regimentation of the mature adults.
Holding the production together for me was the direction in the ensemble of actors and the children’s chorus. Every character on stage had purpose and small storylines, beautifully encapsulated in the return from the party in Act I. The small details amongst them helped give realism to what is quite a melodramatic storyline and a very intense leading character. They were such a joy to watch. The detail filtered into the palpable chemistry between Werther and Charlotte, as they wandered through the reeds and chattered away. For a modern audience this realism feels satisfying and for me an addition that helped to understand the immediacy of their connection a little better. I imagine without it I would have felt quite startled and suspicious of Werther.
Opera Australia’s latest production is a feast for the senses. Each element feels perfectly choreographed in beautiful symbiosis. It is extraordinarily moving and not to be missed if given the chance. Werther will be running at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 11. Tickets are available here.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.