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Performances

Lauren Segal (Charlotte) and John Tessier (Werther) [Photo by R. Tinker]
05 Jun 2017

Werther at Manitoba Opera

If opera ultimately is about bel canto, then one need not look any further than Manitoba Opera’s company premiere of Massenet’s Werther, its lushly scored portrait of an artist as a young man that also showcased a particularly strong cast of principal artists. Notably, all were also marking their own role debuts, as well as this production being the first Massenet opera staged by organization in its 44-year history.

Werther at Manitoba Opera

A review by Holly Harris

Above: Lauren Segal (Charlotte) and John Tessier (Werther)

Photos by R. Tinker

 

Based on Goethe’s German-Romantic tale “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” and sung in French with English surtitles, the nearly three-hour production’s skeletal plot of boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy dies is opera at its compact best. Preferring not to gild the lily with convoluted (albeit operatic) twists and turns, it delves more deeply into the hearts and minds of its ill-fated characters, underscored by Massenet’s stunningly gorgeous music brought to life by Tyrone Paterson leading the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

Last appearing onstage as Tonio in MO’s 2012 production of Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment,” Edmonton-born tenor John Tessier in the title role may quite rightfully may be considered a Canadian treasure. He spun every lyrical phrase like fine gold, first heard during his opening aria “O Nature, pleine de grâce," performed with ease and capped by ringing high notes. His showstopper: Lorsque l’enfant revient d’un voyage,” and later, a goose-bump inducing “Pourquoi me reveiller” elicited well-deserved, spontaneous applause with cries of bravo.

_TNK2491.pngLauren Segal (Charlotte) and Keith Phares (Albert

South African/Canadian mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal as Charlotte also created a flesh-and-blood “angel of duty,” with her prismatic acting skills revealing her character’s inner turmoil until her final climactic “Ah!” after Werther dies in her arms. Segal’s rich vocals also resonated during Act III’s “Va! Laisser couler mes larmes,” that grew in dramatic intensity as she realizes the poet’s path towards self-destruction.

Winnipeg-based soprano Lara Secord-Haid’s sparkling portrayal of Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie captured the impetuous optimism of youth, as she skipped and flitted about the stage with her effervescent colouratura on full display during “Du gai soleil, plein de flame.” But she also imbued her youthful character with subtle nuance, creating a fascinating sub-text for her own tragic tale of love and loss after Werther’s departure leaves her sobbing uncontrollably during Act II.

_TNK1658.pngScene from Werther

Albert performed by American baritone Keith Phares proved solid and true, besotted with his wife Charlotte, with his resonant voice clearly projecting while providing steady ballast to Werther’s eloquent arias.

The cast also includes Le Bailli performed with gravitas by baritone David Watson, and his whiskey-swilling village sidekicks, Johann (baritone Howard Rempel) and Schmidt (tenor Terence Mierau). An ensemble of six children (prepared by Carolyn Boyes) delivered a sweetly jubilant “Noel! Noel,” that heightens the dramatic tension during the final Christmas Eve scene with its twin messages of birth and death.

Having said all this, the production itself proved uneven. Hodges opted for an overall slow-burn approach to the lead characters’ respective emotional trajectories, allowing Werther’s love for Charlotte to first smolder like ashes during Act I and II, before finally erupting into flames in Act III. When the poet arrived to escort Charlotte to the dance in Act I, their first encounter came across as more polite than passionate. His understated reaction to hearing of Charlotte’s impending nuptials also did not clearly read, despite his later, angst-ridden “Un autre est son époux!"

It’s also difficult establishing a physical/emotional connection when Charlotte herself is forbidden fruit, so duty-bound she refuses to even kiss Werther until he is mortally wounded by his own hand. This created a strangely distancing effect that a few embraces – no matter how furtive – might have helped mitigate.

Still, other artistic choices were effective, including an added prologue showing the death of Charlotte’s mother. This established the opera’s overall themes, while also providing Charlotte’s motivation for remaining stonily resistant to Werther’s ardent declarations of love.

The 1920s-styled set on loan from Opéra de Montréal, with the production itself originally created by Opera Australia appeared striking in its simplicity, while also engendering fresh appeal. Nevertheless, sightlines at times became challenging, and the “big box” style of set visually dwarfed the opera’s sweeping themes of transcendent love, despite its waving grasses just beyond the formal exits that beckoned of wild nature and freedom like a siren song.

Effective lighting design by Bill Williams included a luminous moon under which Charlotte and Werther fall in love during Act I, and relatively abrupt fades during Werther’s key arias, which nevertheless focused attention on the doomed poet as he hurtled toward his own death spiral for love.

Holly Harris

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