Aside from Manon, Werther is Jules Massenet’s most celebrated operatic work and is treated respectfully by most opera houses.  However, it has never enjoyed the same level of popularity as the Italian works of Puccini and Verdi or the German operas of Wagner.  Musically it’s hard to understand why as Massenet’s music is phenomenally lyrical and glorious to the ear ranging from beautiful poignancy to devastatingly dramatic all enhanced by skilful orchestrations that are simply stunning.

The problem, however, lies with its insubstantial story line.Very little actually happens during the course of the four acts with the result that there is an awful lot of padding required.  Massenet and his librettists rise to the challenge rather well, but no amount of orchestral interludes, children’s choirs and drawn out death scenes can disguise the fact that this opera is missing a vital element; a decent plot!

Despite this one significant grievance there is much to recommend this excellent new production by Leeds based Opera North which once again shows this vibrant company at its very best, particularly the Orchestra of Opera North which, under the leadership of conductor Richard Frames, is on top form playing the rich and varied score.

An announcement before the overture informed the audience that Alice Coote, in the leading female role of Charlotte, had been suffering Swine Flu for a week, but being a local girl would still be performing. Taking this into consideration, she did a superb job of playing a woman in love with a man other than her husband; both acting and singing the role with conviction and integrity. However, she looked visibly drained during the curtain calls and I am not convinced she should really have performed.

Playing opposite Coote in the title role, Paul Nilon is a tremendous Werther with a versatile voice most tenors can only dream of possessing.  

The remainder of the small cast are uniformly strong. However, special mention for Fflur Wyn as Sophie, younger sister of Charlotte, whose light soprano voice is a delight to hear.

Director Tom Cairns is clearly a theatrical animal and appreciates that opera involves as much acting and drama as any other performing medium and thus he makes the most of the limited dramatic possibilities of this particular opera.

The set by Hildegard Bechtler is a little unbalanced. In acts one and two the outdoor setting is warm and earthy perfectly reflecting the rural setting of the story and there are some lovely touches. I found the train of ducks particularly amusing.  However, in the last two acts, with the setting moved indoors, the set becomes dark and uninviting and appears to veer towards minimalist modernism which, whilst reflecting the change in tone of the music, is inconsistent with the setting for acts one and two. Even so, each act is lit effectively by Charles Balfour.

Musically this production of Werther is a really something special and the company has overcome the failings in the basic material to create a worthy and classy production which should be a treat for all opera fans.

- Malcolm Wallace