Werther review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘outstanding singing’

Joyce DiDonato and Vittorio Grigolo in Werther at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Bill Cooper Joyce DiDonato and Vittorio Grigolo in Werther at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Bill Cooper
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Passions run high in Massenet’s Werther, based on Goethe’s semi-autobiographical novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, so it’s perplexing that three of the four sets, designed by Charles Edwards, are painterly abstractions whose flatness might be intended to leech out energy from the cast. The scene for Werther’s Act IV garret is no exception, except that it begins as a thumbnail at the rear of the stage and gradually moves towards us.

The cast is immune to the stultifying design. Johann and Schmidt, the Mayor’s drinking partners, make for colourful figures – particularly the latter, sung with ringing clarity by Francois Piolino. For his part David Bizic is unusually engaging as Albert (the safe option Charlotte promised her dying mother she would marry).

Charlotte’s sister, Sophie, is Heather Engebretson, who skips and bounds around full of youthful optimism. She’s equally agile of voice with a purity of tone that makes her a joy to listen to. Joyce DiDonato perceptively conveys the torment of Charlotte’s struggle to reconcile her duty to Albert and her stirring love for Werther, and if occasionally her pitch distorts at high volume, the expression is thrilling.

Werther is sung by star tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who gives a sensational performance. The dashing looks and trim physique help, but his ability to modulate his epic sound in the blink of eye, to vary colour and depth is often breathtaking. He sings his Act III Pourquoi me Reveiller and the ensuing duet with Charlotte, with such passion and vigour as to almost physically overwhelm her. In the pit Antonio Pappano shapes the score’s lyricism as well as he unleashes its dramatic despair.

Flatly designed production enlivened by outstanding singing