Irish National Opera’s touring production of Werther impresses in Dundalk

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Massenet, Werther: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Irish National Opera / Philipp Pointner (conductor). An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk, 2.5.2023. (RB)

Niamh O’Sullivan (Charlotte) and Paride Cataldo (Werther) © Pat Redmond

Director – Sophie Motley
Arranger – Richard Peirson
Set and Costume designer – Sarah Bacon
Lighting designer – Sarah Jane Shiels
Children’s Chorus director – Medb Brereton Hurley
Assistant director – Chris Kelly
Movement director – Jessica Kennedy
Language coach – Caroline Moreau

Le Bailli – Wyn Pencarreg
Johann – Owen Gilhooly-Miles
Schmidt – Eamonn Mulhall
Sophie – Sarah Shine
Werther – Paride Cataldo
Charlotte – Niamh O’Sullivan
Albert – Charles Rice
Children – Ethan O’Connor/Molly Verdier/Nora Verdier

Massenet’s Werther is Irish National Opera’s 11th production specifically designed to be taken on tour across Ireland. The venue for this performance was the An Táin Arts Centre in the charming city of Dundalk which is halfway between Dublin and Belfast.

Massenet composed Werther between 1885 and 1887 but it did not receive its premiere until 1892. It is loosely based on Goethe’s epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Werther is an archetypal impulsive Romantic who falls head over heels in love with Charlotte when he first meets her. The feelings are reciprocated, although Charlotte is torn between passion and duty as she promised her dying mother she would marry Albert. In the end Charlotte decides to grant her mother’s wishes and marries Albert. Werther is unable to accept Charlotte’s decision and commits suicide.

The action in the opera takes place in Wetzler in Germany in the 1780’s. In this production Irish National Opera have transferred the action to 1950s Ireland during the country’s post-war rural electrification programme. This was a time of change and of new possibilities when the whole of Irish society was beginning to open up.  However, there were still strict societal expectations particularly of women.

Sarah Bacon’s set consisted of a corrugated iron backdrop with some basic furniture. New electrical devices turned up in Act II and they were blessed by the local parish priest. The set for Act III was more sombre and reflective with the sacred heart painting on the wall underlining the Irish setting. The costumes were appropriate for the time period, although they were not particularly eye-catching. The decision to place the opera in this time period helped to illuminate key points. Werther is a disruptive force in the opera and a catalyst for change. In the same way the rural electrification programme was opening new possibilities for society. The possibility of change is also there for Charlotte who can break free from convention and marry the man she loves. The decision she ultimately takes perhaps underlines the fact that she is a product of an Irish rural community from which she is unable to break free.

Italian tenor, Paride Cataldo, did a brilliant job portraying the love-struck Werther. He has an outstanding voice and brought an easy flowing lyricism to the early scenes. He was able to surge and soar effortlessly to the top of the vocal register and his top notes packed a powerful emotional punch. His rendition of ‘Lorsque l’enfant revient d’un voyage’ was touching and eloquent in equal measure while ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ burned with ardent passion. Niamh O’Sullivan was equally impressive in the role of Charlotte. She crystalised the dilemmas which Charlotte faced with exceptional clarity and was consistently convincing in the various twists and turns of her relationship with Werther. She sang with great beauty of tone in the pivotal Act III letter scene where she moved seamlessly from stoicism to unleashed passion.

Niamh O’Sullivan (Charlotte) and Charles Rice (Albert) © Pat Redmond

The other members of the cast all acquitted themselves well in their respective roles. Charles Rice’s Albert was convivial, although increasingly trenchant as the opera progressed, while Sarah Shine captured perfectly Sophie’s sweet, naïve nature. There were some occasional balance issues with the orchestra, although these resulted from the fact that the venue does not have an orchestral pit.

Given that this was a touring production and the relatively small size of some of the venues the work had to be rescored for a smaller instrumental ensemble. Richard Peirson did an excellent job rescoring the work for a small group of string and woodwind players and a horn player. Philipp Pointner ensured cast, chorus and orchestra remained on track throughout. The use of a smaller group of instrumentalists can sometimes bring greater clarity to a score and Pointner and the orchestra expertly highlighted the range of inventive instrumental textures and sonorities Massenet uses in this opera. The leader of the orchestra, Sarah Sew and the principal cellist, David Edmonds were particularly impressive.

Overall, this was a very fine production featuring some first-rate singing and playing. Italian tenor, Paride Cataldo, was very impressive indeed and I strongly suspect he will be singing major roles in the world’s greatest opera houses in the not-too-distant future.

Robert Beattie

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