Opera, first and foremost, is theatre. More specifically, it’s a form of music theatre, but in this case (Manitoba Opera’s stellar production of Massenet’s Werther) the words are sung by some of the best Canadian and international artists, brought to you by your very own opera company. We are very lucky, as a smaller centre, to have Manitoba Opera, a company that brings such vision and commitment to this, the most immersive, exciting and multi-media of all art forms. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, ably led by opera veteran Maestro Tyrone Paterson, always provides a stunning, majestic soundscape upon which these aforementioned singers lay their vocal lines. The emotions in opera are always larger than life, and the sets, lighting and costumes are of the highest calibre. Saturday saw the opening of Werther, music by French composer Jules Massenet, based on a novel by celebrated German writer Goethe, whose novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was one of the most important novels of the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, and influenced the later Romantic movement in literature. Historically significant, with ultra-lush music from the zenith of French Romanticism, exquisitely performed by highly-trained professionals – what more could you ask for?
I’m starting to make a habit of not reading the synopsis before I go in to see a new-to-me opera. I ask you: Would you read the synopsis of a movie you were going to see, or a new play? I want to be captivated by the drama as it unfolds in real time, I’m not so much interested in the “how’s such-and-such (company or performer) going to interpret this story?” My date for the evening was a friend who is musical in knowledge, but not so experienced in going to the opera. It was interesting to try and listen to the piece through his eyes and ears, and to talk with him at the intermissions.
Werther was totally unknown opera to me before Saturday, but I loved everything about it – the music, the drama, the pacing. It’s not always that a trip to the opera is so dramatically fulfilling, but this certainly was for me. An excellent libretto, crafted by three different writers, was one of the keys to this opera’s success. There are always two elements when I attend opera: the show itself, and the production.
The show: Lush melodies and harmonies, here reminiscent of (or foreshadowing?) Puccini, there a chord progression ripped off by Hollywood superhero film composers, but first and foremost, as operatic music must do (IMHO): serve the drama. Luckily Massenet had a good team of librettists, and was thankfully far enough removed from the excesses of previous generations of French operas to provide listeners with a kind of French version of verismo: realistic opera. Versimo usually refers to an Italian school of opera composition (composers such as Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini) but in the Frenchman Massenet the cycle comes full circle, as Italian writers and composers were in turn introduced to this realistic ideal by French writer Émile Zola. Verismo is defined as “operas focused not on gods, mythological figures, or kings and queens, but on the average contemporary man and woman and their problems, generally of a sexual, romantic, or violent nature”. How hilarious, but true. (Spoiler alert: no on-stage violence to speak of, but there are triggers of suicide and self-harm.)
So, an opera with a believable plot and pacing. Not the rule for operas, by any stretch, but a good thing to look for as opera companies work to expand their audience by reaching out to different segments of society with meaningful operas like this that form a connection with today’s humans. For a great article on another aspect of this, click here
So, we’ve talked a lot about the opera. Now, on to the production.
(BTW, Don’t stop reading just because I am a relatively ignorant opera reviewer. Sure I’ve been to the opera a lot, as I used to work at Vancouver Opera with the Young Artist Program in the 1990s and saw a lot of shows there. However, there are still a few mainstage staples of the repertoire that I don’t know, and Werther was one of them.)
I have to say this production of Werther was beautiful to look at! Set in a 1920s era, the simple but beautiful costumes – by one-word Montreal stylist Barila – and the compact set by Michael Yeargen did a superb job of framing the opera (from a dramatic point of view) and provided the singers with a quasi-shell (from an acoustical point of view) that helped carry their (unamplified!) voices over the orchestra. (((sorry for all the brackets)))
I was most impressed vocally by baritone Keith Phares, who sang with power and grace, and also made us really feel for his character, Albert. Albert is the fiancé of Charlotte, with whom the title character Werther becomes dangerously obsessed. Werther seems to glom onto Charlotte when they first meet, and his body language and manner made me immediately think “uh-oh, this is not going to end well”. I’ve seen guys like this at social events, heck I even was this guy back in the early 90s. What made me feel for Albert as sung by Phares was, he was in love with Charlotte first, and went about it the old-fashioned way (getting set up by Charlotte’s deceased mother). When I first heard Lauren Segal as Charlotte, I thought “listening to her is going to be such a treat!” Segal’s rich, plummy mezzo is a delight, and her handling of the character of Charlotte was deft and vibrant. Sophie, her younger sister, was also sung beautifully by Lara Secord-Haid. John Tessier sang admirably as the lovesick Werther, and his dramatic characterizations were very realistic, scarily so even. David Watson was his stalwart self, in great voice as usual as Charlotte’s father. Howard Rempel and Terrence Mierau were believable as his friends, but Mierau’s French was not up to the standards of the rest of the cast (which is kind of surprising given his last name seems French…) Kudos also to director Ann Hodges, who I feel really kept the action moving, and was undoubtably helped by the fine libretto and the pulsing drama inherent in Massenet’s music. There was hardly any room in the music for applause, which I take as a good thing, as it forces the audience to hold on to the dramatic tension, making the final emotional payoff even more shattering.
This would be an excellent opera for a newcomer. If you know someone who is interested in opera but has never attended, encourage them to try this opera out. I’ll be live-tweeting the show this Tuesday with a bunch of fellow “tweet-seaters” so if you’re still not convinced, follow me on Twitter (@neilmusic) or Instagram (@worldvillagemusic). I’ll be giving as much real-time feedback as my thumbs will allow.