Werther. Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
22 February 2019
The winter snows melt and the chilly scene is transformed into one that is resplendent with the abundance of summer – fruit, flowers, wheat, grapes and the promise of re-birth as the children of the village rehearse a Christmas carol. In stark contrast to this elation and prosperity, the story ends in tears. This is a tenor, like Bizet’s Don Jose, for whom unrequited love results in self-destruction.
Opera Australia’s Elijah Moshinsky-directed production of Massenet’s Werther, premiered in Sydney in 1989. This reprisal, co-directed by Constantine Costi was a role debut for tenor Michael Fabiano as Werther, singing opposite Elena Maximova as Charlotte and Stacey Alleaume as Sophie, with Carlo Montanaro conducting the ensemble and a strong supporting cast comprising Richard Anderson, Luke Gabbedy, Nicholas Jones, Andrew Moran, Haotian Qi and Anna Dowsley.
Costume consultant Sabine Meyers re-imagining created the mood of a painting by Renoir. Michael Yeargan’s set design fashioned a painterly interior of domestic bliss downstage while upstage, against a field of wheat glimpsed through a scrim, we witnessed the passage of time through various stages and ages of love as the village pastor and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
Michael Fabiano gave a towering performance as Werther, the poet created by Goethe in his book The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Goethe was the chief proponent of Sturm und Drang, (“storm and stress”) in German literature. Werther was a personification of that sentiment, taking his own life, and is not without some autobiographical content. The novel is an exemplar of German Romanticism so it is ironic that the opera was composed by a Frenchman and sung in French. Mr Fabiano explored the gamut of the poet’s emotions with an awesome range of timbre and dynamic from tenderly floated ‘headvoice’ to full stentorian power. His showpiece aria Pourquoi me réveiller unleashed a voice almost too powerful to be tamed. Still, he had the brightness and lightness of expression to retain the Gallic feel to his interpretation. The final duet of this aria in which Werther is joined by Charlotte brought show-stopping applause.
Well matched in power to Mr Fabiano’s Werther was Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova’s Charlotte. Maximova played a Charlotte happily ensconced in her role as a surrogate mother to her younger siblings after the death of their mother. She is contented in her predictable betrothal to the spiritless and ever-so-slightly intimidating Albert (Luke Gabbedy), until the passionate Werther arrives on the scene and awakens in her, feelings she has not previously acknowledged. Charlotte’s role was beautifully sung and acted by Maximova who is a radiant presence, but for me, the creamy richness of her voice was not consistent with the lightness and diction required by the genre.
Stacey Alleaume was in shimmering form with her Du gai soleil. Although slightly overacted, her youthful and carefree Sophie created a noticeable contrast to Fabiano’s darkness and Maximova’s too-early responsibilities.
Nicholas Jones as Schmidt has a welcome cameo role; the children’s chorus, prepared by Michael Curtain charmed and entertained while conductor Carlo Montanaro deftly directed the chorus and orchestra – the latter creating a luscious soundscape with many fine solo moments from strings and brass.
Sydney audiences have recently had the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with some of the music of Massenet with Opera Australia’s concert production of Thais in 2016. This Moshinsky production last seen in Sydney around a decade ago, remains fresh with its divine melodies, swoon-worthy arias, lush orchestration and a super-star cast.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
Werther is at the Sydney Opera House on selected evening till March 11, 2019