Opera, Reviews, Stage

Werther opera review (Sydney Opera House)

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As opera love triangles go, this one is pretty staid: boy and girl are engaged, girl falls for another boy before the wedding, who gets a little clingy. If scandal is what you want you’d be better off staying at home with Married At First Sight.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book, from which this opera is adapted, titillated 18th century Germany and led, historians say, to a spate of copycat suicides by men too heartbroken for this world. The stakes on stage just never seem particularly high in this plodding melodrama, a will-she-or-won’t-she-leave-him saga stretched tight over four acts of singing.

But that singing is sublime, injected with real passion from two international singers of class. And sitting at home would mean you miss this tender, rarely performed score, dripping in a rarely cloying romanticism by French composer Jules Massenet. With Italian conductor Carlo Montanaro’s sensitive reading, giving his players just enough rope, it soars over the shallowness in story.

This three-decade-old production is one of the dustiest on the Opera Australia shelf. But like most of those directed by Elijah Moshinsky (Rigoletto, La Traviata) it holds up rather well. There’s a reason the company keeps putting them on (and why they recently awarded Moshinsky their highest honour) – they combine the grandness subscribers expect for their top dollar with smartly coherent storytelling.

Audiences shouldn’t have to wait another decade to hear this fine score. Especially when performed this well.

This Werther, last seen in 2009, has a contemporary edge, at least in the costumes (updated by Sabina Myers). The stately set (Michael Yeargan) changes with the seasons, from the giddy summer lovin’ in act one, the changing of minds in autumn in act two through to the bitter winter of the finale. Clever lighting (originally designed by Robert Bryan) captures the mood.

The two leads make welcome returns to Australia as even shinier stars.

Michael Fabiano didn’t generate much heat opposite Jessica Pratt’s Lucia in Sydney last year, but here the American tenor embodies the love-sick Werther with agonous, full-throated impact. His act three aria, ‘Pourquoi me réveiller?’, is a masterclass in clarion leading-man singing.

Russian Elena Maximova showcased her gravelly tones on Massenet last year in Don Quichotte. Charlotte, the woman Werther wants, is a much bigger role with a much bigger range and she makes the leap with aplomb. Opposite Fabiano, well matched vocally and physically (young lovers played by age-appropriate performers!), their duets won enthusiastic applause.

Of the local talent, Stacey Alleaume distinguished herself in another supporting role as Charlotte’s sister Sophie. Luke Gabbedy’s brassy baritone lent weight to Albert, Charlotte’s ever-loyal husband. And Andrew Moran (Johann) and Nicholas Jones (Schmidt) provided some comic relief as wine-swilling friends.

Audiences shouldn’t have to wait another decade to hear this fine score. Especially when performed this well.

Werther plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 11

Image: Elena Maximova as Charlotte, Michael Fabiano as Werther and the Opera Australia Children’s Chorus in Opera Australia’s production of Werther at the Sydney Opera House. Photo by Prudence Upton.

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