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ETO’s Werther at the Britten Theatre review – ‘some fine singing’

Carolyn Dobbin and Lauren Zolezzi in English Touring Opera's production of Werther. Photo: Robert Workman Carolyn Dobbin and Lauren Zolezzi in English Touring Opera's production of Werther. Photo: Robert Workman

The second of the trio of French operas that forms ETO’s autumn tour is Massenet’s popular tragedy based on Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. The action is shifted from the late-1700s Germany to 1940s America, Oliver Townsend’s design offering a surprisingly humble domestic setting for the Bailli’s dwelling, with a tiny kitchen to one side.

The single set doesn’t itself cause too many problems, nor does the reduction of the orchestra to just piano, violin, clarinet and cello (in a skilful arrangement by Iain Farrington, who directs from the piano). It’s of relatively little disturbance too that director Oliver Platt has excised some of the minor roles. The decision to opt for Massenet’s own version casting the hero Werther as a baritone rather than a tenor is where things start to fall apart. This is not because the baritone voice is inherently less thrilling than a tenor’s but that, in this particular treatment, Werther, sung by Ed Ballard, comes over as a gawky bespectacled whiner, rather than an impassioned would-be lover for whom Charlotte’s decision to honour her promise to marry Albert (here a cigarette-smoking GI and so easily more attractive) can lead only to suicide. Rather than crackling with tension, Werther’s Act 3 scene with Charlotte, when she momentarily succumbs to him, is faintly cringe-inducing. Charlotte herself (Carolyn Dobbin) also needs more dramatic definition, but is warmly and gushingly sung while Simon Wallfisch is a forthright Albert. Lauren Zolezzi steals the show as the radiant, ever-cheery Sophie, whose sunny outlook shines through her voice too.

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Some fine singing, with four musicians gallantly replacing the orchestra, but the title character fails to stir the emotions