Monday 20 June 2016

Shot in the dark: Massenet's 'Werther' at the ROH

This could be one of the 'fastest' blog entries I've ever posted. Only yesterday, I was at the opening 'night' (in fact a matinée) of Massenet's 'Werther' at the Royal Opera House. (The production, originally directed by Benoît Jacquot, dates back to 2004.) More normally, I happily let a performance of anything - not just opera - bubble around in my head for a while, percolating, until I feel ready to write about it. This time, though, I came home desperate to get started at the keyboard, brain fizzing, fingertips tingling. One evening later, here we are.

Partly, I think this is because I might have a fighting chance of encouraging you to go. Normally, these pieces are retrospective (depending on when I go myself and when I get time to write the posts), but as I type, you have five more chances to see it. Tickets on sale here, and take note that 27 June is the cinema relay night, should you not be able to go to the ROH in person. However, I will be including 'spoilers' below, so if you're not familiar with 'Werther' and would prefer to see it 'cold', please stop reading here with my blessing, and make the trip. Then come back and see if you agree with me!

The plot (based on a novel by Goethe) is broadly as follows. Werther is a young man who seems to be a poet (we're told quite late in the opera that he has translated verses) but otherwise little is said about his situation and he seems to have no ties. He's well enough liked in the town of Wetzlar, but regarded as melancholy. Charlotte is the mayor's daughter, and the eldest of a small army of siblings she now helps her father bring up. She promised her dying mother that she would marry the eligible Albert, who is away as the opera opens. Werther takes her to a ball, and promptly falls for her. Albert, however, returns that night. Charlotte had more or less put Albert out of her mind (he's been gone six months, after all), but on hearing that Albert is back, she explains the situation to Werther, who falls almost instantly into suicidal despair.

Three months into Charlotte and Albert's marriage, Werther is in fact still moping about the place, lamenting his situation. Against the background of golden wedding celebrations for the local minister, Werther again confronts Charlotte, who tells him he must leave Wetzlar - not for ever, but basically to sort himself out. Fatally, she suggests he come back at Christmas, but Werther declares he will leave for good. Albert, who has already guessed that Werther is in love with Charlotte, takes his self-imposed exile as confirmation.

Charlotte receives passionate letters from Werther which draw her love for him to the surface. At Christmas, Werther does indeed return but after a further anguished encounter, Charlotte manages to resist him once again. Werther leaves, but sends word to Albert asking to borrow his pistols for a long journey. On hearing this, Charlotte grasps its meaning and rushes to Werther's flat - where he lies bleeding after shooting himself. He hears Charlotte confess her love for him, then dies in her arms.

This was my first encounter with 'Werther', and it felt markedly different to any other opera I've seen. It has a modern psychological aspect to it, where action is sacrificed to soliloquy and conversation - the plot tends to move forward between the acts. But the story never feels static, as the music puts paid to any hint of dramatic inertia. It's a masterful, as well as beautiful, score: even on first hearing, it seemed possible to discern how Massenet was manipulating the moodswings of the piece, eliding the gloomy accompaniment for Werther into relatively upbeat surrounds, illustrating how his despair will come to infect everyone and everything around him. (Werther makes a speciality of killing celebrations stone dead: the ball, the golden wedding, even Christmas.) Realist touches also add punctuation: the jangle of horses, the church organ. Under Antonio Pappano, the ROH orchestra really seemed to get under the skin of the music - a rich, full sound that somehow conveyed a sense of the 'knife-edge', as the characters teeter on the brink.

I've suggested that it's an opera of the mind, taking to extremes the idea of bringing the 'internal' to the surface or exterior. We tend to hear the characters' inner thoughts articulated and dramatised, between actual events that we don't see. But there seems to be plenty more going on in terms of reversals, opposites and switches.

In the same way that the music blurs light and dark, there's an ironic clash of genres in the extent to which the opera pushes its comic aspects (it reminded me a little of 'Romeo and Juliet' in this respect). Apparent incidentals, like the mayor's drunken pals Johann and Schmidt - whose larking about lasts a lot longer into the story than is strictly comfortable - seem to symbolise not so much 'freedom' as abandon, release - something denied to Werther and Charlotte.

The brilliant opening of the opera - July, but to the sound of Christmas carols - turns out to foreshadow a major, chilling plot point. But at face value, at first encounter, it unsettles while it charms: something wrong is happening here. And at the close of the tale, Werther's death in fact leaves a supposedly happy marriage intact - a classic comedy ending - had Charlotte not finally tipped over into acknowledging her love for the other man.

Werther's dying is in itself notable. The lovelorn noble tenor part - the convention/cliché suggests he'd have a much better chance of surviving the opera than Charlotte. But then Werther is an odd character all told. Something of an anti-hero, he seems weak-willed, a bit pathetic - I've seen various comments (across social media and in various articles) vexed at how off-putting a romantic lead he is.

It seems to me that Werther is, in fact, the opera's villain (which is why he dies, and the married couple survive). I don't mean a baddie in the 'mu-ha-ha', 'panto-Scarpia' vein: I mean the more subtle kind of wrong-doing where the perpetrator is convinced they're actually right. He blackmails Charlotte emotionally with threats of suicide from the outset, but instead hangs around to haunt her in this world instead. He pleads love for her again three months into the marriage - what can he be expecting? - and seems to admit defeat by leaving the town. But no - he writes ardent love letters to Charlotte, making it impossible for her to forget him (rather than the other way round). Still re-buffed on his Christmas appearance, he only then goes through with the suicide - but even in his dying breath he ensures that a guilt-ridden Charlotte will visit his grave, casting a permanent shadow over the marriage.

Talking of shadows, the staging makes brilliant use of light/dark effects. The castbook notes point out that the settings reflect the opera's tone by getting more dark and dismal as the opera goes on, but I think this is a bit of a modest summary. On the bright July set of Act 1, Werther first appears as a shadow against the door - from that point on, the management of light and space increase a claustrophobic sense of the doom closing in on Werther. Darkness begins to fall in Act 2. By Act 3, he is trapped in the drawing room (or similar) of the house - when Charlotte escapes his clutches into another part of the building, he seems unable to give proper chase, flailing in the single location, and eventually leaving thanks to a shaft of light from the side of the stage. Finally, as he lays dying in Act 4, he almost seems to fill one side of his flat, which is compressed into a small box within the set. As the opera ends, all is black apart from a candle flame - a single focal point, possibly to express the small hope that survives of Charlotte moving on with her life.

(Fire and energy from the two leads. Photo by Bill Cooper - copyright to the ROH.)

The leads are, well, extraordinary. In or out of character, Vittorio Grigòro can be a born showman and Joyce DiDonato exuberance itself - so what brilliant casting to let them loose on this brooding, thorny, inward-facing piece. Two utterly committed, serious performances (not that I'd expect otherwise!): vocally, they pulled out all the stops when appropriate but could totally convince in quieter dynamic mode, to give us 'thinking aloud', interior monologue, uncertainty, anguish. I had the sense that they were directing their energy and fire into making Werther and Charlotte real, angsty, 3D. VG's Werther cannot keep still, pacing, reeling, struggling against his own nature. JDD's Charlotte is a gloriously physical performance, from twirling when playing with her younger siblings, through constant fidgeting as she waits in the house, to fighting Werther off ... even through to moving him around and hauling him up when he's at death's door. As opera demands, it was 'proper' acting, writ large: generous gestures, enormous impact.

Please go to one of the remaining performances if you can. The music will stir your soul, the singers break your heart ... and the ideas lodge themselves in your subconscious. A superb achievement.

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