Werther

A Vancouver Opera presentation. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, October 14

The only pity about Vancouver Opera's concert presentation of Jules Massenet's Werther was that it wasn't better attended; what was a respectable house should have been SRO. Those who opted for elsewhere missed not only a gorgeous performance, but also a classic example of pathetic fallacy in action. This, you'll recall, was the day that our First Nations summer, or whatever we call it now, was finally subsumed by mists and mellow fruitfulness. And that was the night that the rains began in earnest. It was as if whatever minor deity who'd pulled the weekend meteorology shift summoned up a low-pressure system to accessorize the fantastically foreboding story and score: stormy Werther.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published the novel that inspired the opera in 1774. Those were palmy days, long before our nearly obscene obsession with personal safety and individual continuation began to trump all other concerns; before merchandise was sullied by Parental Advisory or health warnings. Had such outlets for umbrage been available to the hectoring scolds of the day, The Sorrows of Young Werther would have carried the cautionary note, “May precipitate suicide” . In one of history's most famous examples of death imitating art, many young men, love-addled, took the unbalanced Werther as their role model, imprudently not excluding his application of pistol to temple.

If Werther, the novel, sounded the starting gun for romanticism, then Werther, the opera, about 100 years later, brought the movement close to the finish line. The music is febrile and lush, particularly in the instrumental scoring. One of the great pleasures of a concert performance is that the orchestra isn't jammed into the pit but shares the stage with the singers. As a listener, you take away from the experience a clearer sense of the composer's big picture, the organic whole. As well, you realize how often, in a full-blown staging, the production gets in the way of the music. This was an impediment-free evening, with terrific performances from the principals, particularly from Bruce Sledge in the title role, Kimberly Barber as his beloved Charlotte, and Robyn Driedger-Klassen as her irrationally cheerful little sister, Sophie. Special kudos to Jacques Lacombe, a compact Energizer Bunny of a conductor whose verve and intelligence were reflected back and magnified by the very fine orchestra.

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