The start of Scottish Opera’s new production of Massenet’s Werther is deceptive. As the curtain goes up we have a pleasant enough scene. A wooden structure is present with what look like rickety stairs. Snow soon starts to fall at the rear of the stage – snow that will continue to fall for much of the production. Pretty soon, a troop of pretty children appear and are being taught to sing a Christmas carol by their father. A finely gift-wrapped box is passed from one character to another and one starts to expect that by the time we meet our hero Jonathan Boyd as Werther, he will be complaining that his tiny hand is frozen and that we will be hearing all about pretty romantic love in a cold garret, whilst pretty urchins churn out one Christmas ditty after another. The whole thing seemed to set us up for a night of Christmas slush derived from the still fast-falling snow, even though Act I is supposed to be set in July!
However, it was not to be. It was clear from fairly early on that this was not a piece about the joy of romantic love but rather its pain and desperation. The snow signified not slush coming our way but the cold bitterness of impossible love.
It soon became apparent that not everything going on in front of us was straightforward either. Werther himself appeared but did not seem to be visible to the children and their father singing their carols. Even more strangely, he appeared to have a doppelgänger who was to watch and wait through much of the action, as though he were Werther’s inner self (or more accurately inner turmoil) roaming around the world. There seemed to be nothing that was not to be touched by Werther’s troubles and he was very present in the lives of all around him.
Boyd’s Werther was an extraordinary achievement. The part keeps him on stage and in the limelight for so much of the action that it must be a relentless part to take on. Fortunately he was more than up to the task. His voice had enough passion to please the audience but also a fraught, worried agony that ensured a real sympathy, even though one might have been expected to want his rather shallow character to grow up and stop being silly and spoilt.
The plot is little more than an artifice upon which to hang tormented, agonised arias about the miseries of love. Werther loves Charlotte. Charlotte has promised her meddling but dead mother that she will marry Albert. On marrying Albert, Charlotte realises she would really prefer to be with Werther. And they all end up living unhappily ever after except for Werther who shoots himself.
I have to confess that throughout the first half, I believed that mezzo Viktoria Vizin had been entirely miscast as Charlotte, Werther’s love interest. Though Charlotte has brought up all her siblings (those children whom we met at the beginning) in the absence of their mother, Miss Vizin’s voice still seemed too matronly for the part. Would Werther really have preferred her to the dazzling Anna Devin who played Sophie, yet another sister of the family? However, it soon became clear after the interval that I had been mistaken. Beneath the dull, businesslike voice of the first half, Miss Vizin in fact had been hiding a smouldering and burning heart. As she came to realise her passion for the now absent Werther her voice took on an emotional quality that could not have been foreseen earlier in the evening. As Charlotte writhed her way around her drawing room in agonies of love, so the intensity of Miss Vizin’s singing built and built. Charlotte was driven quite as mad by her love for Werther as Werther in his turn had been driven by her. This was an opera with not one mad scene, but two and each was as powerful as the other.
This is a piece in which we rarely see much light. The darkness grows colder and more chilling until Werther eventually breathes his agonised last. In this production the chill was given a particularly icy blast by the use that was made of the group of half a dozen children. They were on stage for quite a lot of the opera and turned out not to be pretty urchins at all. Those children were trouble and those children were utterly creepy. Whether they were wearing strange masks or getting in the way of the other characters, they represented the inner chaotic disorder of Werther’s personality perfectly. They were particularly effective when pushing Werther’s letters into Charlotte’s drawing room whilst she ranted and raved about love. The letters appeared through cracks in the door, the walls and the fireplace producing an astonishing effect of turmoil and frenzy. It was a child too who carried the pistols - yes, in that finely gift-wrapped box we saw at the beginning, from Charlotte’s hands, which would eventually be used by Werther to bring it all to an end. Those children were a triumph for director Pia Furtado and those children were utterly horrid.
Roland Wood offered solid support as Albert. The strength of the nasal quality of his singing may not have been to everyone’s taste but he represented order amidst the descent of his wife into chaos both dutifully and well. Jonathan Best had a nice patrician Bailli – father of all he surveyed and was ably supported by Harry Nicoll and Jonathan May as two slightly comic friends.
Singing honours still go to Anna Devin though. Her Sophie was a delight. Trilling her way up and down a large vocal range, she was coquettish and quite delicious. Poor Werther chose the wrong sister and it was never quite apparent why he did.
Down in the pit, Francesco Corti did seem to be more in charge of the orchestra than he has been in recent productions. There were no significant problems of balance and the singers for once had no trouble making themselves heard. Gorgeous string playing enhanced the last act and Massenet’s scoring of a miserable sounding saxophone perfectly accompanied Werther’s suicide. By that time, it had snowed so much during the proceedings that the left hand side of the stage appeared to have run out of snowflakes to flutter down. However it didn’t matter, Helen Goddard’s design was still as dark and as chilling as it needed to be.
This is a confident new staging that has much to commend itself. The score is interesting, the voices are balanced and beautiful and though it is agonising to be witness to, this is ultimately a very satisfying tragedy indeed.
Photographs © James Glossop