This film presentation by Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas of the Royal Opera’s production of Werther, composed by Jules Massenet, was captured live from Covent Garden, London, on 27 June 2016. The screening is a long one, running for a little under three and a half hours which includes two intervals. It is sung in French with English subtitles.
Werther is a dramatic and emotional story about the conflict between fulfilling (perceived) duty and following one’s own heart. The excellent libretto by Edouard Blau and Paul Milliet is loosely based on the 1774 romatic novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Goethe. It was an important novel of the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, and influenced the later Romantic movement in literature The libretto pares back the novel to its very core , which is an intense study of the pysches and passionate struggles of the the two leading characters Werther and Charlotte. Indeed, there are very few moments in the entire opera when neither one nor the other are on stage.
Werther and Charlotte are attracted to each other, but Charlotte intends to honour her mother’s dying wish that she should marry Albert, which she does. Her duty fulfilled, Charlotte is condemned to an unhappy marriage that she believes she can endure only if Werther stays well away, which he does, but he writes her love letters. Werther unexpectedly returns but is again rebuffed, which he takes very badly and shoots himself and dies in Charlotte’s arms.
It all sounds terribly melodramatic, but it is not. This is finely wrought high drama and Massenet’s rich and brooding score intensifies the emotion and sense of foreboding, and was brought wonderfully to life by Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. The essential loneliness of Werther and Charlotte was intensified by the sparse and almost monolithic sets by Charles Edwards: two tragic pawns in a game of maintaining appearances and fulfilling duty.
Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato made her debut in the role of Charlotte, and she has made it her own. She exuded love of family and devotion to duty while ensuring an underlying sense of unfulment was never far from the surface. Vittorio Grigòlo’s Werther was perfect and a highight of the production: he handled the profound and prophetic libretto with great sensitivity and never came across merely as a spurned suitor. The confrontation scene between Charlotte and Werther in Act 3 was beautifully and dramatically sung.
David Bižić impressed in the role of Albert and was completely chilling when he benignly gave Werther his pistols who ultimaly used them to commit suicide. Bižić left us in no doubt that Albert knew what was in Werther’s mind, and we hated him for it and pitied Charlotte even more. As Sophie (Charlotte’s sister), Heather Engebretson was a joy and her vivacity in the role underlined the spitefulness of Albert as he encouraged her to ‘appeal’ to Werther as a seond best choice.
Director Benoît Jacquot’s production is a triumph. As a film it perhaps does not work as well as other opera screenings, but that is mostly because of the sets that were depressingly monotone in their hue.
Reviewed by Kym Clayton
Rating out of 10: 7
Werther will screen again on 3 August 2016 as part of the Palace Opera & Ballet cinema season, presenting the Royal Opera House, La Scala and Opéra National de Paris exclusive at the Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.