Friday 9 October 2015

A baritone Werther in 1950's USA at English Touring Opera

Carolyn Dobbin, Ed Ballard - Massenet Werther - English Touring Opera - photo Robert Workman
Carolyn Dobbin, Adam Tunnicliffe - Massenet Werther - English Touring Opera - photo Robert Workman
Massenet Werther (baritone version); Ed Ballard, Charlotte Dobbin, Simon Wallfisch, Lauren Zolezzi, Michael Druiett, dir: Oliver Platt, cond: Iain Farrington; English Touring Opera at the Britten Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 08 2015
Star rating: 3.5

The rarely performed baritone version, in a chamber arrangement, set in 1950's America

As part of their season of French opera, English Touring Opera presented Massenet's Werther, in a chamber reduction by Iain Farrington using the rarely performed baritone version of the opera (made by the composer in 1902 for the baritone Battistini). We caught the performance on 8 October 2015 at the Royal College of Music's Britten Theatre. Ed Ballard sang the title role, Caroline Dobbin sang Charlotte, with Simon Wallfisch as Albert, Lauren Zolezzi as Sophie, Michael Druiett as Le Bailli and Jeff Stuart as Johan Schmidt with children from Vauxhall Primary School. Iain Farrington directed the instrumental ensemble from the piano. The production was directed by Oliver Platt, designed by Oliver Townsend and lighting by Mark Howland.

Michael Druiett, Lauren Zalozzi & children - Massenet Werther - English Touring Opera - photo Robert Workman
Michael Druiett, Lauren Zalozzi & children
photo Robert Workman
Massenet's baritone version of Werther is a rather workman-like piece, Massenet kept the orchestral accompaniment the same and simply applied alterations and transpositions to the solo line. The result is rather unsatisfactory because at crucial moments, when the tenor part soars, the baritone simply shies away from the top leaving the poor soloist with an awkward line, or an octave transposition which sat rather low in the voice.

Oliver Platt and Oliver Townsend's production set the piece in 1950's middle America which works well in terms of the functionality of the plot with its obsession with family and duty, but sat rather oddly with the strong vein of poetry in the piece. In a joint interview in the programme book, talking about how they developed the ideas for the set, Oliver Townsend said that 'From the start Oliver Platt (director) was interested in the domestic rituals and routines embodied by the character of Charlotte'. This is an aspect of the plot which was rather neatly satirised by Thackeray (a poem set beautifully by John Dankworth, hear it on YouTube ):

Carolyn Dobbin, Lauren Zalozzi & children - Massenet Werther - English Touring Opera - photo Robert Workman
Carolyn Dobbin, Lauren Zalozzi & children
photo Robert Workman
WERTHER had a love for Charlotte
Such as words could never utter;
Would you know how first he met her?
She was cutting bread and butter.

Charlotte was a married lady,
And a moral man was Werther,
And for all the wealth of Indies
Would do nothing for to hurt her.

So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
And his passion boil’d and bubbled,
Till he blew his silly brains out,
And no more was by it troubled.

Charlotte, having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.

I have to confess that Platt and Townsend's production rather called to mind this poem. Using a single set which depicted the interior of Le Bailli's house, the first two acts had a strong reliance on the inanities of daily life. So much so that the bubbling passion of Charlotte (Carolyn Dobbin) and Werther (Ed Ballard) never really took centre stage in the way it ought. Platt is not the first director to be caught out by these first two acts, and perhaps the balance of the production might have been altered had the tenor version been used so that the protagonist could soar over the daily grind. But this did not really happen, it was only in the second half that the passion took off with any degree of intensity.

A curiosity of the production was that, though in theory neo-realist, the same set was used for both the interior and exterior scenes with just some atmospheric changes of lighting. And the four instrumentalists (Iain Farrington - piano, Philippa Mo - violin, Morwenna De Mar - cello, Oliver Pashley - clarinet) were on stage as well.

Ed Ballard did his best with baritone Werther, singing with soft grained tone and a nice flexibility. With such a small group of instrumentalists accompanying there were no problems of balance but there was sometimes a sense of intense poetry missing. This was most noticeable in the opera's showpiece, the Act Three recitation of translations of Ossian where in my minds ear I could still hear the tenor line as a ghost and Massenet had not crafted anything like as exciting to replace it, so that despite Ballard's best shot it did not soar. Oliver Platt seems to have conceived Werther as a rather intense, buttoned up young man but this combined with the sound-world of the vocal part meant that he came over as a bit too much of a wet week.

It wasn't helped that Albert, a real baritone part, was played with virile power by Simon Wallfisch. Wallfisch (who impressed in the role when performing it with Grimeborn last year) had the knack of making Albert vital and interesting rather than safe and boring as can sometimes happen.

Simon Wallfisch - Massenet Werther - English Touring Opera - photo Robert Workman
Simon Wallfisch - photo Robert Workman
Carolyn Dobbin made a warmly lyrical Charlotte, singing with a lovely flexible firm tone. In the first half she seemed a little inhibited, but all this changed when the letter scene in Act Three brought for a wonderful stream of lyrical intensity. Like most mezzo-sopranos she grew into the role with the more maturer Charlotte of Acts Three and Four coming over more strongly than the girlish one of the earlier acts, and it was Dobbin with her sense of musical drama and gloriously rich voice who dominated the second half.

Lauren Zolezzi made a charming Sophie, the only high voiced soloist in the ensemble. She brought a lovely sense of joy to the work along with a nice feel for the coloratura. Michael Druiett was a fine paterfamilias, despite acquiring something of a drinking habit via some of the lines transferred from his drinking companions whose characters were cut from this version. Jeff Stuart provided strong support as the only one of Le Bailli's cronies to survive.

The six children from Vauxhall Primary School made a lively contribution to the first part, singing their carol with great enthusiasm and participating in the stage action with glee. At each venue where the production is being performed, English Touring Opera will be working with a different group of children.

Norman Tucker's English translation was sung, and the cast's diction was strong so we understood every word. Perhaps too much so as the translation, though highly functional, is not the most poetic of things and there were a few moments of pointing out the obvious.

Massenet's Werther is a large scale symphonic piece, requiring a large orchestra and bit developed voices to match (the original Werther Ernest van Dyck was a dramatic tenor who sang Wagner). Whilst a great deal was lost from Iain Farrington's chamber arrangement, it was highly effective and did mean that the piece could be cast from singers who looked the ages of their characters (Charlotte is supposed to be 20, Werther is 23 and Albert is 25). And the instrumentalists played with a lovely sense of fluid freedom.

This was one of those productions where, despite a lot of hard work and some lovely individual performances, the whole never seemed to quite gel or come into focus. That said, Massenet's Werther is only rarely done and ETO is to be congratulated for having the daring to have a go and take the piece on tour to eight different venues across England.

(Note the pictures were taking at the dress rehearsal when Ed Ballard was indisposed and replaced by Adam Tunnicliffe)

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thank so so much for removing my comment. I like your ability to receive criticism.

    2. Sorry if I managed to remove your comment, please do post it again. It is sometimes difficult to filter out the spam and random comments from the genuine ones.

  2. feel you are being kind to the production, which (for me) seemed grossly misguided and simply did not work: the set looked like a Council flat in Peckham. Why would the prosperous mayor live in a dump like that? The only clue it was somehow set in the USA was Albert's uniform. And the choice of the baritone version was pointless - bearing in mind many people in the provinces will be seeing Werther for the first time, why on earth give them the 3rd rate version? The on-stage quartet was really no replacement for Massenet's exquisite orchestration either. However, I entirely agree about Albert: by far the best singer on stage - why would Charlotte be interested in the nerdy Werther when she had the virile Albert?.

    1. I think that the baritone version bothered me more than the setting, but I agree about the setting being curious. If it had been a tenor, I might have got more aerated about the setting etc.

  3. I am one of those people from the provinces seeing Werther for the first time before a rather scant audience at Durham last night, which was even more scant after half the row in front failed to turn up for the second half. Well you can't expect a small touring company like ETO to put on a large scale lavish romantic opera. It's not what they do. They were trying here to turn this into a small family tragedy and I suppose they wanted the baritone version so that the opera wouldn't be dominated by the big tenor arias. It certainly wasn't. I thought there were two problems with it. The first is the rather formal English translation used. We discovered half way through the the first act when Albert turns up in a GI's uniform that it is supposed to be set in America, but all the characters speak in rather formal English. Who in small town America would say "Is this the house of the magistrate?" Do they even have magistrates in America? And what GI is called Albert pronounced in the French fashion. But the main problem is Werther, who appears to be a creepy bespectacled bank clerk stalking the local housewives. He even appears at the end of the letter aria standing silhouetted in the window of the kitchen door for all the world like the mad axe killer in a horror movie. We fully expect him to take the pistol at the end and massacre the whole family. In fact it might have made for a better ending if he had.

    1. Jo, I love your comment about a creepy bank clerk stalking housewives! Just so. And yes massacre would have geed things up no end.


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