They say that timing is everything in things like real estate and dancing, but in many instances it is of the utmost importance in love. This is beautifully illustrated in Jules Massenet’s romantic/tragic opera, Werther. If Albert had come back one day earlier Charlotte and Werther (Phillip Addis) would never have gone the ball together and never would have fallen hopelessly in love. This lack of timing would have prevented much anguish and ultimately a death. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Most of the time when you go the opera it’s to watch people not of your time. There are the elaborate sets and costumes like period films. Everything including how they behave and think are not always relatable. This is not the case with the Opera de Montreal’s production of Werther. The director is Australian Christopher Dawes and he has given us an updated version of the opera originally set in Germany in 1780.
The costumes are all slick, runway worthy and modern. Designed by the successful Barilà sisters, who run their own design company right here in Montreal. I’ve never felt the urge to bring opera glasses before, but the desire to get a close up look at the clothes on stage gave me the urge.
The set is quite simple and muted in tones and colours, which allows the music and voices to be the stars. Set designer, also an Aussie, Elijah Moshinsky caused some tsk tsking when he debuted his set in Australia in 1989, but I think it does great service to Massenet’s work. Reinterpretation is not necessarily an evil. It seems now to be set somewhere in the early 20th century somewhere on the East Coast of the United States or maybe in the Australian outback. The rural setting is at a large beach house with plenty of green grass out front and long, brown wheat along the sides. Swings, benches, bicycles, and wicker garden furniture decorate the outside of the Bailiff family home. The lighting (Anne-Catherine Simard-Deraspe) further accentuates the dreamlike quality set up by the set. The reds and blues of the sky add an ethereal quality to the occurrences
Amidst this bucolic setting it is hard to imagine that tragedy could occur. Yet it does. The first tragedy is that the mother of the Bailiff family is taken away from them at a young age (happens before the beginning of the opera) and her eldest daughter, Charlotte (Michèle Losier), is charged with taking care of her five younger siblings. On her mother’s death bed, Charlotte not only promised her mother that she would take care of her brothers and sisters like they were her own, she also makes the promise that she would marry Albert (Stephen Hegedus) when she came of age.
This is all fine and dandy, as she does like the successful Albert. That is until she meets the poet Werther. Rarely out of the house due to her obligations to her younger siblings, Charlotte agrees to go to a ball one night in the company of Werther. The two young people fall hopelessly in love on that warm night. So much so that Charlotte almost forgets that she has promised to marry Albert.
The timing aspect comes into play when The Bailiff yells out when he hears his daughter return that night that Albert is back. Hearing the name of the man she has promised herself to jolts Charlotte back into reality and she tells Werther that something between them is not possible. When Charlotte utters these words you can almost hear Werther’s heart break. He is despondent, but lets his love go back into the house.
Next time the curtain rises we are at a church three months later where the community is celebrating the golden wedding anniversary of the pastor. There as guests are newlyweds Albert and Charlotte and the very depressed Werther. After the celebration, both Sophie (Suzanne Rigden) and Albert have a go at trying to cheer Werther up, but to no avail. Werther and Charlotte have some time alone and reminisce about the night they met and fell in love. Charlotte reminds Werther that she is a married woman. She begs him not to see her before Christmas. Crushed, Werther thinks about killing himself and then decides to leave town. Albert sees Charlotte’s reaction to this and understand what his wife’s true feelings for the poet are.
It is Christmas Eve and Charlotte is rereading letters that Werther wrote her. Sophie stops by and asks her older sister to come and spend Christmas with her family. Charlotte seeks solace in prayer. She is deep into it when Werther arrives. Remembering what they meant to each other Charlotte is once again caught up in her feelings for him. During an embrace Charlotte remembers what her situation is and flees. There and then Werther decides to end his suffering.
Albert returns home to find his wife a mess and a letter from Werther saying he is leaving on a long trip and will be needing Albert’s guns. Without feeling, Albert tells Charlotte to give the servant his guns. The ending is plain as the nose your face.
The very opening scene of the youngest Bailiff children and father (Alain Coulombe) sitting and playing on the lawn outside their house coupled with the soft string filled music made me think that I was watching one of the many family oriented Disney movies that aired every Sunday during my childhood. Now, I don’t mean that in a looking down my nose kind of way, just that it made me feel nostalgic. It got me involved in the story on an emotional level from the get go.
Normally Werther is performed by tenors, but this authorized (Massenet did it himself in the past) reworking is done by baritones Addis and Hegedus. The baritone element does add much to the seriousness of the opera. The story is made even more tragic. The lower elements of Werther’s and Albert’s parts adds plenty of punch to the darker elements. Hegedus’s diction is not the greatest and I sometimes had trouble understanding what he was saying. There could also have been a little more oomph or power to his voice, but he was wonderfully pitch perfect.
There is no questioning of the voice of the lead man. Just listen to his handling of the “Pourquoi Me Réveiller” solo. Addis is great in the role with a very vivid and clear voice. Warm and golden his voice should soften even the most harsh critic. Though in regards to his acting I would have liked to see him cut loose a bit and take more risks. Be less reserved. He and Losier really shine during the last act, the death scene. Michèle Losier is equally sympathetic and youthful in the role. And I did like the tone of her voice, but at times I had trouble hearing it over the orchestra. A little more power to her soprano would have been handy. Her acting got better after the Second Act as she was a little conventional and wooden to start.
The Montreal Symphony Orchestra does a wonderful job with the music under conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni. They add the colour that is not found in the set and there is plenty of intensity in it. The talent in the pit handles with ease and aplomb the various changes in tempo, key and tone. There is a particularly well-done saxophone solo in Act III that is quite moving. Zeitouni deftly commands his troop and does Massenet’s music proud.
-Venue: Place des Arts – Salle Wilfrid Pelletier
-Ticket Purchase: www.billeterie.pda.qc.ca
-Ticket Prices: $43.41, $67.34, $93.91, $120.49 (plus taxes and service charges)
-Show Time: 8:00 p.m.