Jules Massenet WERTHER

Opera Holland Park, 15 July 2003

and Naxos 8.660072-73

Werther – Amos Christie
Charlotte – Alison Kettlewell
Albert – Howard Quilla Croft
Sophie – Victoria Joyce
Le Bailli – Richard Lloyd Morgan
Schmidt - Neville Ackerman
Johann – Richard Woodhall
Bruhlmann - Alex Routledge
Katchen - Susie Parkes


Director Tom Hawkes
Conductor Dominic Wheeler
Designer Peter Rice
Lighting Designer Roger Frith

Another notable suicide in Holland Park, musically impressive but flawed dramatically in the production of the earlier acts, which were handicapped by the sets and conventional staging, which gave poor representation of the social milieu and current attitudes in which Charlotte's moral conflicts were played out.

Massenet is not an English favourite, nor mine; I have seen and heard Werther before, more than once, but nothing of the music really imprints itself in the mind and memory, and I feel somewhat siimilarly about Thais.

It begins with a lot of fussy summer preparations for the Christmas to come, outdoing the autumn Christmas decorations to which we have become accustomed. The orchestration is rather dense without a pit, and the minor characters of widower father and drinking friends are inclined to shout to get their words across. This was not helped by surtitles invisible against the blue sky in our July heatwave until twilight supervened; four people were credited with these and one wonders, not for the first time, whether there is not affordable expertise to duplicate them to left and right (as one has seen in opera houses on the continent) until funds allow a radical upgrading of the system; for opera in the original language, they arte no longer a luxury.

Alison Kettlewell and Amos Christie give believable depictions of the dutiful fiancee and wife and besotted admirer who cannot move on in his life, and Howard Quilla Croft as the husband who is clearly not going to relinquish his prize. Dominic Wheeler has a visibly good rapport with the orchestra which has supported this year's productions so well during the season. The locations, which offer us no suggestion of a real life outside a financially stretched opera company's stage, don't help, but the singers draw and win our attention to their predicaments and the incipient tragedy. The final death scene is moving and ensured a satisfied departure to the rigours of London Transport at the end of the hottest day of the year (* until then!!).

Peter Grahame Woolf

* An accident and broken leg soon after writing the above prevented me from covering Stiffelio & Lucia di Lammerloor this year, and I spent the peak of our unprecedented heat wave, topping 100 F in hospital. However, I look forward to returning to this fine "urban country house opera" company's productions next season. (For the coming few months my Musical Pointers reviews will perforce be predominantly restricted to recordings on CD & DVD.


Orchestre National de Lille/Jean-Claude Casadesus
Haddock. Uria-Monzon . Massis . Azzaretti . Marliere . Bou . Delescluse
Maitrise Boreale .
Naxos 8.660072-73

A budget priced 1999 Naxos recording from Lille, a live staging directed by Jean-Claude Casadesus, has provided another opportunity to consider Werther, that tending to confirm my mixed impressions of this opera itself at Holland Park.

The original Goethe novel was clearly influential in its day and of undoubted historical importance. It is well known in German-speaking Europe but not read in England, and doubtless it fleshes out the themes and characters in a way that, I suspect, is emasculated by the libretto by three writers, Blau, Milliet and Hartmann?

Massenet's orchestration is powerful, but I found that whilst the vocal lines responded dutifully to the libretto, they failed to create a life of their own. The melodies remain for me unmemorable and, on CD, less involving than even in what was a flawed staging at Holland Park.

Some operas benefit by separation from fixed visual images, but this one seems to depend on sight to support what we hear. Perhaps one day there will be a DVD of a version which places it in the context of the historical & moral situations of the time, romantic love thwarted by duty in a time when mothers of young children often died before their time. At least, one did not have to suspend disbelief for the 16 year old Sophie, sung with youthful charm and delight in life by Jael Azzeratti.

I was well satisfied with the chief roles in the capable voices or Marcus Haddock and Beatrice Uria-Monzon. The Albert is Rene Massis, a wobbly baritone with shaky intonation; surprising in a recording taken (presumably) from several performances. That character, the worthy, stolid and dull fiance and husband, was better taken in Holland Park and is a real weakness in this recording. The direction and orchestral playing is good and the full text is provided - only in French, though. My rudimentary school French proved adequate to keep track easily and readers will know well that I strongly feel the need for more than just synopses of the action.

Peter Grahame Woolf