Orchestra Overwhelms Scottish Opera’s Werther

27/02/2013

 Massenet, Werther: Soloists, Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Francesco Corti (conductor), Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 26.2.2012 (SRT)

Cast:

Werther – Jonathan Boyd
Charlotte – Viktoria Vizin
Alfred – Roland Wood
Sophie – Anna Devin

Production:

Pia Furtado (director)
Helen Goddard (designer)

So much about Werther really shouldn’t work in our contemporary, cynical age. This tale of lovers kept apart by old-fashioned ideas of loyalty and duty doesn’t really chime with our free-and-easy modern mindset, and nowadays we struggle to believe that a young man would be so utterly distracted by love as to be driven to suicide. And yet the story retains an extraordinary power to move. Its simplicity is surely the key to its success (it was a runaway success for Goethe when it was published in 1774, almost alarmingly so!) and Massenet surrounds it with a web of music so beautiful and dramatic as to elicit our sympathy for these fully human characters, helpless at the mercy of a range of emotions they can neither control nor understand.

Which is why I find it puzzling that Pia Furtado saw the need to shroud Werther and Charlotte’s story in an odd series of flashbacks. The first thing we see, as the overture plays, is Werther receiving Albert’s pistols (which he will use to kill himself in the final act). The entire story is then told in flashbacks as Werther, at the end of his life, reflects on how he arrived at such a pass. It doesn’t actively get in the way of the story, but nor does it add anything and my predominant feeling was of mild irritation rather than of dramatic enlightenment. Furthermore, its use of lighting to jump between flashback and real-time is rather unsubtle, as is the clunky use of Werther’s doppelgänger who sometime watches the scenes he is in (and sometimes doesn’t). One effective touch is to link Charlotte’s idyllic home life with a doll’s house which is then smashed by the final scene. Setting the whole thing in Werther’s studio (he’s a painter in this production) only worked periodically, though.

The singing cast was a rather mixed bag. Jonathan Boyd’s tenor is a lighter one than we have become used to hearing in the role, but his repeated (excessive?) use of the head voice to sing the part is probably fairly to similar to what Massenet himself would have been used to hearing at the Opéra Comique. I couldn’t quite grow to love it, though, and I yearned for the full-blown outpouring of longing that should really make this role catch fire. Roland Wood had a more appealing vocal tone, but there was a touch of gravel in his voice that tended to reduce his level of lyricism. The women were more successful. Viktoria Vizin has an electric intensity to her voice, especially in the letter scene, which brilliantly captured Charlotte’s emotional turmoil. Likewise, the first scene and her duet with Werther brought out the slightly luxuriant quality to her voice, managing to capture both Charlotte’s erotic appeal to Werther and her selfless maternal instincts. Her rich, fruity mezzo stood in good contrast to the light, pingy soprano of Anna Devin, a wonderful Sophie who dealt with both pleasure and pain with the lightest of touches.

The biggest problems of the evening, though, came not from the stage but from the pit: not from the orchestra, whose playing brought out the various colours of Massenet’s score very well, most especially from the solo saxophone and harp. Instead it was the blunt hammer conducting of Francesco Corti, Scottish Opera’s music director, that bludgeoned almost all of the French delicacy out of Massenet’s score. Most damagingly, he seemed determined to turn the orchestra up to eleven, harming the more subtle moments of the score and ruining Boyd’s and Vizin’s chances of being heard in the great climaxes. The end of Pourquoi me reveiller, for example, brought a storm of sound from the pit, rendering Boyd entirely inaudible, and most of the vocal exchanges between Werther and Charlotte in the third act were lost to a great degree. It might be the production’s first night in Edinburgh – last week it was in the very different acoustic of Glasgow’s Theatre Royal – but this refusal (or inability) to shade the orchestra’s approach suggests a worrying lack of attention to detail.

Scottish Opera’s 2012-13 season includes new productions of The Flying Dutchman and The Pirates of Penzance. For full details go to www.scottishopera.org.uk.

Simon Thompson

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