There are good reasons for playing Massenet’s opera straight. It has quaint “period” features, such as the children’s scenes and the comic double-act of Schmidt and Johann, that do not respond to a conceptual framework. The story is not an intellectual drama; it’s about emotion and sentiment. It responds to a simple narrative framework that lets the music do the talking. All this is especially relevant to Scotland, where Werther has not been performed for 30 years.
But an ambitious young director invariably feels the need to make a mark, and this is where Pia Furtado trips up in her new production for Scottish Opera. She has cluttered the stage with symbolic distancing effects that, while designed to suggest a flashback, end up confusing the story and deadening its emotional impact. Werther has a “double”, a cliché of modern opera production, and is bizarrely presented as a painter, not a poet. The story is updated to the 1920s and the Bailli’s household intermittently appear in masks. None of this illuminates anything.
Helen Goddard’s permanent set, an old-fashioned wooden steading, offers no sense of the changing seasons: it is always snowing. In Act Three, when Charlotte reads Werther’s letters in a mood of mounting hysteria, he stands front-of-stage handing out sheets of paper which are then “posted” through slits in her drawing room wall. Oh dear.
Given a simpler brief – a popular piece, say, for Scottish Opera’s small-scale tour – Furtado might have focused her ideas. This Werther suggests she has been promoted too quickly. It adds to the perception that the company’s artistic policy lacks a defining purpose.
The show does have one attractive feature – Jonathan Boyd’s Werther. He is musical, sings in excellent French and looks more than presentable. His top notes may not be his strongest, but whenever he moves centre-stage, the performance has a heart. Viktoria Vizin’s Charlotte suffers from an ugly wig, poor French and a tremolo that only disappears when the voice is not under pressure. However hard she tries, she cannot communicate emotion. Roland Wood is the efficient Albert, and Francesco Corti steers the orchestra safely and discreetly through Massenet’s tempestuous climaxes.