Home » Opera and Ballet » Review : Werther at the Royal Opera House – 19th June 2016

Review : Werther at the Royal Opera House – 19th June 2016

(c)BC20160616_WERTHER_RO_ JOYCE DIDONATO AS CHARLOTTE, VITTORIO GRIGÒLO AS WERTHER (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER

Werther-Joyce DiDonato as Charlotte, Vittorio Grigòlo as Werther, (C) ROH (photographer Bill Cooper)

There was a sense of high anticipation in the audience at the Royal Opera House with the pairing for the first time of acclaimed Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo and popular American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato  in a revival of Benoît Jacquot’s production of Massenet’s opera, Werther.

The opera is based on the novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and published in 1774. Goethe who was only 24 years old at the time became an international literary celebrity and the book became one of the most important of the growing Romantic movement. The book became a phenomenon all over Europe which led to some young men to dress like Werther and in some rare cases commit suicide.

It was a story that had always intrigued Jules Massenet who began the score in 1885, the libretto, prepared by Edouard Blau and Paul Milliet provides a shortened version of Goethe’s Romantic novel and concentrates on the passions and torments of the two main characters. Werther had its premiere at the Vienna Hofoper in 1892 and was also performed later in Paris to a mixed reception. However, its London premiere in 1894 was considered a bit of a disaster and remarkably the opera did not enter The Royal Opera’s repertory until 1979. Since then, Werther and Manon have been considered Massenet’s finest operas and are regularly performed.

WERTHER_THE ROYAL OPERA; ROH, Werther; Vittorio Grigolo, Charlotte; Joyce DiDonato, Albert; David Bizic, Sophie; Heather Engebretson, Le Bailli; Jonathan Summers, Johann; Yuriy Yurchuk, Schmidt; François Piolino, Bruhlmann; Rick Zwart, Kathchen; Emily

Werther-Jonathan Summers as Le Bailli,Joyce DiDonato as Charlotte, (C) ROH (photographer Bill Cooper)

The opera begins with a gentle and good humoured scene as the Bailli (mayor)  of the town is rehearsing his children in a Christmas carol. The Bailli’s daughter Sophie discusses the evening’s ball and the appearance of Werther ( Vittorio Grigolo ), a young poet in the village. Local drunks, Johan and Schmidt congratulate the children on their singing and look forward to an evening of drinking. Charlotte (Joyce DiDonato) , the Bailli’s eldest daughter turns up and plays with the children, unaware she is being watched by the poet Werther who is overcome by the beauty of the surroundings and Charlotte. Albert, Charlotte’s fiancé returns after a six month absence to find out that Charlotte has gone to the ball with Werther. When Charlotte and Werther return from the dance, the lovesick poet declares his love, however Charlotte tells him that she had promised her dying mother that she would marry Albert and look after the family.

The first act provides all the ingredients for the drama to unfold and the second act provides an opportunity for the main characters intentions to develop. Once again a gentle scene outside a church provides some lightness before the dark and smouldering emotions of Charlotte and Werther surface. Albert meets Werther and suggests that Sophie may be a prospective wife for him, this has no effect on the infatuated Werther who is in despair as once again Charlotte tells him to go away.

WERTHER_THE ROYAL OPERA; ROH, Werther; Vittorio Grigolo, Charlotte; Joyce DiDonato, Albert; David Bizic, Sophie; Heather Engebretson, Le Bailli; Jonathan Summers, Johann; Yuriy Yurchuk, Schmidt; François Piolino, Bruhlmann; Rick Zwart, Kathchen; Emily

Werther-Joyce DiDonato as Charlotte, (C) ROH (photographer Bill Cooper)

In the third act, we begin to understand how Charlotte thinks and feels with ‘Air des lettres’, the orchestral introduction sets the scene of turmoil and unhappiness as Charlotte’s begins to confess her feelings for Werther. Although she prays to God for guidance, the appearance of Werther leads to a passionate embrace before being overcome with guilt, she runs away. Werther chases after her, but to no avail and in despair Werther sends a message to Albert to ask to borrow his pistols. Albert hands the pistols to Charlotte to hand over to the messenger, Werther ‘s intentions are clear and in the musical interlude, a pistol shot confirms the outcome.

WERTHER_THE ROYAL OPERA; ROH, Werther; Vittorio Grigolo, Charlotte; Joyce DiDonato, Albert; David Bizic, Sophie; Heather Engebretson, Le Bailli; Jonathan Summers, Johann; Yuriy Yurchuk, Schmidt; François Piolino, Bruhlmann; Rick Zwart, Kathchen; Emily

Werther-Joyce DiDonato as Charlotte, Vittorio Grigòlo as Werther, (C) ROH (photographer Bill Cooper)

For the final act, Werther’s room is portrayed as a window as the snow falls outside until it is gradually moved to the front of the stage where Werther sits slumped on the floor. The arrival of Charlotte brings a degree of redemption as she confesses she has loved him since their first meeting. Werther finds a serene peace as his life drifts away and gives instructions about his final resting place.

(C)BC20160616_WERTHER_RO_438 JOYCE DIDONATO AS CHARLOTTE, VITTORIO GRIGÒLO AS WERTHER (C) ROH. PHOTOGRAPHER BILL COOPER

Werther-Joyce DiDonato as Charlotte, Vittorio Grigòlo as Werther, (C) ROH (photographer Bill Cooper)

Werther is quite an unusual opera in which it explores the different perspectives of love, the drama is mostly based around the complex emotions of Werther and Charlotte and how the unhappy romance reaches its conclusion. This revival of Benoît Jacquot’s production by Andrew Sinclair , Massenet’s elegant score wonderfully expressed by Antonio Pappano and the orchestra and Charles Edwards simple yet effective sets take us from the light of the first two acts to the darkness of the final two acts. In lesser hands, the opera could veer towards a simple melodrama, however, the charismatic Vittorio Grigolo’s Werther is a complex character who moves between romantic hero and deluded fool. Equally Joyce DiDonato’s Charlotte shows her own complexities moving between woman of great virtue to tragic heroine. It is these ambiguities that perhaps explain why this is an opera which had a limited appeal in the 18th and 19th centuries but gained popularity in the 20th and 21st centuries where audiences respond  to more complex and rounded characters. The enthusiastic response of the audience to Grigolo and DiDonato’s remarkable performances in the main roles suggest this will be a highly successful revival, they were well supported  by a excellent cast  especially Heather Engebretson as the excitable Sophie and David Bizic as the stoic Albert.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

The production continues to the 13th July, for information or buy tickets, visit the Royal Opera House website here

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