Friday 22 August 2014

Massenet's Werther at Grimeborn

Katie Bray as Charlotte in Massenet's Werther at the Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Theatre
Katie Bray as Charlotte
Massenet Werther; Adam Tunnifliffe, Katie Bray, dir. Aylin Bozok; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 20 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Stylish and imaginative chamber version of Massenet's romantic drama

Aylin Bozok's new production of Massenet's Werther at the Arcola Theatre's Grimeborn Festival was inevitably something of a chamber affair (Seen 20 August 2014). Performed in the larger of the theatre's two studios, with just piano accompaniment Bozok's production lost some of the larger scale grandeur (and smaller roles) and focussed on the main principals, Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther, Katie Bray as Charlotte, Lucy Knight as Sophie, Simon Wallfisch as Albert and Thomas Faulkner as Le Bailli. The gloriously romantic costumes were by the London-based Turkish fashion designer Bora Aksu.

Lucy Knight as Sophie and Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther in Massenet's Werther at the Grimeborn Festival at Arcola Theatre
Lucy Knight as Sophie and Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther
Bozok used a cut version of the score, gone were the younger children and the whole of the first scene where Le Bailli rehearses them in the Christmas song was excised (though we did get the off-stage reprise of the song at the very end of the opera). Also missing from the first act were the extra personnel, no friends for Werther and Charlotte, no drinking companions for Le Bailli. This had various dramaturgical effects. The role of Le Bailli was reduced to almost an irrelevancy, and he came across as something of a sad, lone drunkard. Without the scenes of family life in act one, Charlotte's reliance on her mother's memory was placed without a context. I have seen a number of very effective productions in which Werther makes his first entrance silently, watching Charlotte with the children. In the full version, the origin of Charlotte's very clearly defined sense of duty is made manifest. In Bozok's production we had to take much of this on trust, and with no larger scale scenes the drama tended to concentrate on the principals. To give more of a dramatic thrust, Bozok introduced the ghost of Charlotte's mother who loomed ominously at key moments,. This made for a rather different emphasis on the plot.

There was minimal set, but Aksu's evocative costumes highlighted the heavy Romantic atmosphere, with the women's outfits in particular rather suggesting the work of artist Paula Rego.

Katie Bray made a young and vibrant Charlotte. At first, she was convincingly youthful and the duet with Adam Tunnicliffe's Albert which concluded act one was rapturously carefree, only when the ghost of Mother (Ada Burke) appeared, did Charlotte bring herself back to duty. In act two, surrounded by Albert's letters, Bray revealed a lovely intense power in her voice, creating a vibrantly passionate feel to Charlotte's music. This built into act three with the long, turbulent scene with Albert including the wonderful Ossian setting. Bray continued this feeling of development and maturity, so that in act four she had really grown up. This was done both dramatically musically, with Bray combining a lovely flexibility of line with a sense of intense power.

Adam Tunnicliffe's Werther seems to have rather divided people. In a studio space like Arcola, the tenor hero is often at a disadvantage as when singing 19th (and 20th) century romantic opera, it can be difficult for the tenor voice to operate a low power. Almost inevitably, Tunnicliffe's vibrant tenor voice came over as a little loud at times. More of a problem was that, though he had an admirable eveneness of tone throughout the range, there was a lack of variety in colour. This was something of a problem, as dramatically Tunnicliffe came over as little more than a love-sick puppy. Perhaps this was deliberate, but I don't feel that Werther works unless there is something rather manic about the character with the sense that he is far and away more intense and almost disturbed compared to the normality of Charlotte and her family. Instead, Bozok seemed to be giving us a chamber drama where all the characters were on a par. Tunnicliffe's Werther was, I think, the loser here, though he gave us some gloriously vibrantly sung moments and I would like to encounter his account of the role in a larger more traditional production.

Lucy Knight made a delightful Sophie, giving the character a certain wide-eyed wonder and youthful attitude which worked well and her act 2 solo was full of the right amount of charm and lyric beauty. There was a degree of extra by-play in the action which seemed to be suggesting that Sophie was in love with Werther too.

Frankly, the role of Albert is rather a dull stick and it is a tribute to Simon Wallfisch that he managed to make far more of the character than is usual. His early scenes with Bray were convincingly love-struck, but there is no disguising that Albert is a pillar of bourgeois rectitude who is jealous of the fascination that Werther has for Charlotte. Thomas Faulkner did what he could with the truncated role of Le Bailli.

The opera was accompanied Philip Voldman on piano who coped superbly with the fistfuls of notes that the piano reduction contains. Though Voldman's playing was expressive, I have to confess that in the orchestral interludes (though some were cut), I did rather miss the richness and sophistication of Massenet's orchestration.

By reducing the score and the accompaniment, the production threw the opera into a new and interesting light. I still have reservations about the reduction, but in fact as a theatrical event Bozok's production worked remarkably well. Both she and her cast generated some interesting insights into the opera. But anyone coming to the work for the first time, needs to experience a full scale production to come to know the work properly.
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