Werther: an opera review by Victor Grynberg

March 1, 2019 by Victor Grynberg
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Suicide is painless when Massenet pulls the strings.

Michael Fabiano as Werther and Elena Maximova as Charlotte in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Werther at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo credit: Prudence Upton

Grand Opera always features a death or many. Illness (La Boheme, La Traviata ) Murder (Don Carlos ) and a host more.

Suicide is rarely the central theme. But the ending of this opera is foretold in Act 1 when the desperately in love Werther sings “Married to another man. But I will die”

That this sad tale of unrequited love is such a successful opera is all related to the great 19th-century French composer Jules Massenet, whose marvellous score supports the whole production.

Naturally, in an opera like this when the two leads carry so much of the singing load, it’s critical that the singing and acting be as good as the material.

OA has secured another hit because they’ve cast this opera so well.

Making a welcome return to the stage of the Joan Sutherland theatre after his great success in “Lucia di Lammermoor ‘ is American tenor Michael Fabiano in the title role. Starting with his earnest love for Charlotte, and finishing with his despair and then suicide, Fabiano always seemed effortlessly in control of his voice, much to the enjoyment of the enthusiastic house. As with most modern leads, Fabiano acts his role to a very high standard such that the audience emphasises with him as his suffering takes its toll on him.

The opera itself is based on THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER by perhaps the greatest ever German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Around the globe, German Cultural and language institutions are known as GOETHE INSTITUT.

So profound was the mark this novel made that a new term was invented. “The Werther Effect “ for copycat suicides. There was, in fact, a spike of these suicides after the publication of the Goethe novel.

The cause of Werther’s despair? His love for Charlotte, who sadly for him, had promised her mother on her deathbed that she would marry Albert (Luke Gabbedy)

Gabbedy, though still young is an OA veteran and sings and acts the Albert role with a type of formality, filling out well the personality that has been ascribed to the role. A strong voice, vital for the production.

As Charlotte, we were privileged to have Russian soprano Elena Maximova. First seen on these shores last year as the beautiful Dulcinee in DON QUICHOTTE, Maximova was very convincing. No shrillness at all, just a honey sweet sound and a character split between her “forced” marriage and the man she now realizes she really loves.

The fourth member of the lead quartet was audience favourite Stacey Alleaume as Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister. Desperately keen on Werther, but getting nowhere with him. She sang quite beautifully, and her style and smile gave full credibility to her role. No wonder she received such an especially rapturous applause from the very appreciative audience.

Victor Grynberg

Strong support was given by the small cast and excellent children’s group, but particularly by Richard Anderson as the Bailiff.

This production is an update of the original 1989 production by genius director Elijah Moshinsky. His legacy to OA is astonishing, and just a subtle update to costumes was enough to bring this to a fresh 2019  standard.

Massenet equals great music, the Meditation from “Thais “ being the most notable example. This score doesn’t have a hit quite like that but nonetheless is extremely pleasant to listen to. The Opera Australia Orchestra, continuing their good form since having their squashy pit extended played beautifully, under the all-knowing leadership of Carlo Montanaro.

WERTHER by Jules Massenet


Joan Sutherland Theatre

Sydney Opera House

February 26th

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