Review – Werther

Mar 2 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩    Throbbing with emotion

No entry: Jonathan Boyd as Werther is excluded in Scottish Opera's magnificent production at the Festival Theatre. Photo credit James Glossop.

No entry: Jonathan Boyd as Werther is excluded in Scottish Opera’s magnificent production at the Festival Theatre. Photo credit James Glossop.

Festival Theatre
Tue 26 Feb – Sat 2 March 2013
Review by Thom Dibdin

Bursting at the seams with big, pent-up emotions, director Pia Furtado’s take on Massenet’s Werther gets right to the throbbing, angst-ridden heart of his tragedy.

The adaptation of Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther is deceptively simple.

Young artist falls in love with young woman not knowing she it betrothed. She marries the other and he runs away. He returns, they kiss – once and for the first time – and he runs off to top himself. He dies in her arms.

But while the plot develops neatly, Furtado allows the production to bring out all the depths of emotional reflection which Massenet brings to his music.

She echoes the epistolary nature of Goethe’s 1775 novel by having Werther on stage throughout. When not involved in the action he is an observer, unseen by those around him. Sometimes he wanders among them conducting the narrative, at others he stands mute, at the side.

The trick makes the whole thing appear not as straight narrative, but as Werther’s mythic fantasy of his own downfall. It is a fevered re-imagining, as he lies dying, that allows him to come to terms with – and justify to himself – his own tragedy.

Helen Goddard’s design, a huge open barn like structure around which Werther can wander, helps emphasise this dreamlike element. Snow falls, what ever the season, and although Werther can pace the floor, he is never able to climb a staircase to the door to his beloved’s family home.

There is no doubt about it, this is all self-inflicted. It is a young man’s self-created angst which he wallows in for its own sake.

Massenet’s score is equally unforgiving. Big and lush it leaves no question of what he thinks of his protagonist. While innocence gets glorious, effortlessly rising music lines, Werther’s motifs are not just dark and strident, but become increasingly mangled as the opera progresses.

Jonathan Boyd as Werther is easily up to the task in hand. That he has a fine, strong voice, enough to take on the depths of the role is one thing. But he also succeeds in driving the action as a actor.

Something spectacularly unhealthy about his feelings

His presence is ethereal in the early scenes that set out the situation of Charlotte, eldest daughter of an eight-strong family and surrogate for her dead mother to her siblings. It’s a role she promised her dying mother she would take on. And they adore her for it, allowing their father, the local magistrate, to carry on with business.

A rare moment of happiness between Jonathan Boyd's Werther and Viktoria Vizin's Charlotte in Scottish Opera's production of Werther.

A rare moment of happiness between Jonathan Boyd’s Werther and Viktoria Vizin’s Charlotte in Scottish Opera’s production of Werther. Photo credit James Glossop.

But when he declares his love, singing that he wants to marry her so “no one else can see her face”, you can be sure that there is something spectacularly unhealthy about his feelings.

Viktoria Vizin is equally impressive as Charlotte. A fitting figure to idolise, her voice rises strong and flighty in the early scenes, leading poor Werther up the garden path. It oozes angst when she realises that she can’t give up the staid Albert, as her marriage to him is another deathbed promise to her mother.

The supporting roles are what help make the opera bloom and flourish. Only Jonathan Best as the father feels lost in the mix. Anna Devin is particular stunning as Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister who has her own designs on Werther and thus encourages Albert’s attentions. Any fool by Werther would happily drop Charlotte to pursue her.

Roland Wood is all unctuous gloating as Albert. He senses Werther’s yearnings and latterly sends his pistols to help his rival ease his way into death. Jonathan May and Harry Nicoll provide a merry – perhaps the only merry – element as a pair of curly-topped old chumps whose comic distractions are a warning for the life of a single man.

And the youngsters playing the six younger siblings, bring the necessary childlike simplicity to their singing of the Christmas carols – and several devilish visual notes in the later scenes.

The whole idea of Werther standing outside and watching comes to a head in the final scenes, when a stand-in allows Boyd to take part in a scene while his dreaming self still watches. Sadly the switch over is not carried out with quite the sleight of theatre it might have been.

A thoroughly satisfying production which immerses you in its world and show’s a young man’s heart being broken in all its gory detail. No wonder the Werther effect has become a synonym for copycat suicide.

Running time 2 hours 25 minutes.
Run ends Saturday 2 March 2013

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