Life on the other side

‘Werther’ offers all kinds of hooks and angles to draw the spectator in.

TWO SCENES from the Israeli Opera House’s production of ‘Werther.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
TWO SCENES from the Israeli Opera House’s production of ‘Werther.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Opera is about high drama, and there is generally a generous dosage of romance in there somewhere. Even by those accepted sensorial standards, Werther manages to tug on the heartstrings a little more powerfully than most.
The work in question was written in 1892 by Romantic French composer Jules Massenet, who is better known for Manon created in 1884. A new production of the work will open at the Israeli Opera House on November 9, with 11 more performances scheduled through November 23. The cast for the production includes Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung in the title role, Israeli mezzo-sopranos Maya Lahyani and Na’ama Goldman as Werther’s objet d’amour Charlotte, American baritone Keith Harris as Charlotte’s fiancé Albert and Koren bass Insung Sim as Charlotte’s father. Conducting duties will be shared by Alan Guingal from France, making his Israeli Opera debut, and Youval Zorn. The visual aesthetics will be enhanced by the work of Argentine costume designer Stella Maris Muller and Belgian set artist Benoit Dugardyn, while France-based compatriot Paul Emile Fourny directs the entire production.
The textual substratum for the opera feeds off The Sorrows of Young Werther, which was written by Goethe in 1774 and set the then-20-something German writer on his path to literary glory. It tells the story, based on Goethe’s own experiences of things romantic at the time, of the unrequited love of Werther for Charlotte. Without giving too much of the plot away, things don’t go too well for the back-door suitor in all sorts of ways.
Fourny, who is on his third stint with the Israeli Opera, is delighted to be back here, and to be overseeing the production of what is considered by many to be something of a B-lister offering by Massenet. Fourny does not subscribe to that view. “For me Werther is the best opera by Massenet,” he states. “Of course, everybody knows Manon, which is, of course, a very good piece. But Werther is more interesting for me.”
The director says that rather than following a well-beaten storyline path, Werther offers all kinds of hooks and angles to draw the spectator into the unfolding action, which he feels has a contemporary feel to it. “I really enjoy staging this work. The music is very beautiful, like very good movie music. And the characters are so interesting.”
ONE MIGHT have thought that working with an opera which was written a century after the original chronological setting would offer the director generous leeway for playing around with the temporal framework. Then again, trying to parachute a zeitgeist into a new era can be a tricky business. “That is a bit of a problem for me,” says Fourny. “The music comes from the Romantic period, so it has to stay there.”
Then again, the director feels he does have plenty of room for maneuver in other areas, particularly when it comes to portraying emotions and mindsets. “I put the story in an art museum,” he explains. “The character of Werther is so interesting for me because he is completely crazy. He becomes completely neurotic during the story.”
Fourny places a delicate balancing act between tangible reality and art, much like the conceptual divide between onstage action and where the members of the audience are at in their own existential points of reference. As Werther absorbs the severity of his predicament, vis-à-vis Charlotte, his fragile hold on a balanced view of life becomes increasingly tenuous, and we witness his gradual decline into insanity and, naturally, his tragic premature demise.
“On stage, I wanted to symbolize this madness through an immense painting that evolves over the course of his obsessions, from a scene from 1893 based on an evocation of Magritte,” says Fourny. The choice of painter is especially apt, given that, like the director, Magritte hailed from Belgium and came from the Surrealist school of thought – a perfect vehicle for conveying the torment of a young man on shaky emotional ground.
The audience is then privy to a seesaw storyline continuum as the title character oscillates between actual reality and his own unraveling grasp of how life is panning out for him, and for Charlotte.
Fourny is excited to have another opportunity to work his directorial magic in Tel Aviv, and in particular, to present Werther to the opera-going crowd here. “Beyond the orchestral and vocal complexity of the work, the biggest challenge is perhaps to convince the public to come and discover this masterpiece of Massenet,” he says.
Werther is, indeed, a tour de force of unrestrained emotion, with the music to match, and the current production should keep the audiences suitably engaged, too.
For tickets and information, call 03-692-7777 or go to