Pros: The hugely talented cast, whose exquisite singing made me shudder and smile at the same time.
Cons: I didn’t much like the period costumes, they seemed slightly awkward.
Someone once said that one cannot sing about the petty, everyday injustices of life: the seat on the tube you wanted that was snatched up by someone younger and fitter than you; aphids getting hold of your peppermint plant yet again; that additional 40p charge for your flat white because you’re not holding any cash. If it moves you to sing, it has to be about true love, passion, death, despair, or God. Werther at the Arcola Theatre, which is playing as part of this year’s Grimeborn Festival, ticks all of these boxes.
The young and melancholy poet Werther finds his muse in the beautiful and innocent Charlotte, who has, however, promised herself to Albert on her mother’s deathbed. When Albert unexpectedly returns, Werther’s heart is broken at the thought of another man being Charlotte’s husband. Charlotte, a dutiful wife, and haunted by her dead mother’s spirit, remains faithful to her husband. Only when Werther commits suicide in despair and is in the clutches of death does Charlotte admit that she loves him, and finally returns the kiss that he has so longed for.
It is a beautiful, moving piece of opera to which director Aylin Bozok brings a delicate and spine-tingling element. The French libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartman is exquisitely sung by the cast, in particular Katie Bray as the dutiful Charlotte and Adam Tunnicliffe as the sorrowful and intense Werther, both of whose voices are as impressive as they are beautiful. When these star-crossed lovers sung, my whole body reverberated with their joy or despair. Simon Wallfisch is brilliant, too, as Charlotte’s kind and understanding, but ultimately destructive husband Albert, and Lucy Knight brings a playful and wide-eyed innocence to Charlotte’s younger sister.
The setting in the Arcola’s simple studio, with its exposed brick walls only lightly embellished with white draping and clever lighting, works perfectly, and it is a treat to be so close to the action and the talented cast in this intimate space.
One thing I was not sure about, and this feels like quibbling, were the period costumes, which just seemed a little awkward. The cast didn’t appear entirely comfortable in them. Charlotte, for example, wears a Miss Havisham-y white dress that looks rather ragged and out of place, and that clashes a bit with her modern hair style. That said, Werther is a treat for eyes and ears, and proves that you certainly do not have to travel down to Glyndebourne to find beautiful singing and tragic stories of love and despair.
Author: Jules Massenet, based on Goethe’s The Sorrows of the Young Werther
Director: Aylin Bozok
Booking Until: 23 August 2014
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking Link: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/tickets-for/arcola/grimeborn-werther