Make Me Care

Last week I was lucky enough to go to a revival of Massenet’s Werther at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I’m not a true opera aficionada, but I love the way great composers use music as a vehicle for story.

The story of Werther is simple, intimate, romantic and tragic. The eponymous hero, an arty, melodramatic young man, is in love with beautiful, unattainable Charlotte. Charlotte, the epitome of integrity, is already promised to boring, respectable Albert. Charlotte chooses duty and Albert but continues to hanker after Werther, which poisons her marriage. Werther, unable to live without Charlotte, commits suicide. Charlotte runs to his death-bed and gives full rein to her feelings when it’s all too late.

I had a fabulous afternoon. Massenet’s music is beautiful, and the ROH orchestra did it full justice. The leads, Vittorio Grigolo and Joyce DiDonato, looked great, acted beautifully, and sang with passion and finesse. Every one of the supporting cast did likewise. The lighting was a bit moody for my taste, but spot on for a story of dark passion and mutual obsession. The sets were traditional and appropriate to a story based on an 18th century novel; no arty cleverness or quirky takes or reinventing anything, which was refreshing.

Shame about the narrative.

I like a good operatic tragedy, and I’m prepared to commit to characters that I’d never tolerate in a novel (sorry, Goethe fans). With the right music, OTT characters can be fascinating. So even though a temperamental tantrum-thrower isn’t my ideal hero, and a goody two-shoes martyred bride sets my teeth on edge, there was more than enough juice in this plot to get me invested. A love triangle where the girl has to choose between a handsome, passionate suitor and a solid, socially acceptable one is a classic romance trope and I was expecting to have my heart broken on behalf of all three of them. It never happened for me. In fact, pretty much nothing happened until Werther shot himself.

Neither of the main characters had any arc whatsoever. It was ‘I love you;’ ‘I’m married to him,’ over and over with spectacularly good music, until the very end, when Albert loses patience with the histrionics. When Werther asks for the loan of the household pistols, Albert says to Charlotte “You give them to him.” She does. And that pushes Werther over the edge. I loved that. Character is choice under pressure, and those few minutes made my hair stand on end.  I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t have been thinking ‘Good for Albert.’ I cried a little at the end, because the music and the performances were so emotionally powerful, but ultimately I didn’t care what happened to Werther or Charlotte.

I know Werther is a classic opera, based on a very famous book that was a sensational best-seller in the 1770s. I’m sure I’m bringing contemporary attitudes to a period story, but the same could be said of Eugene Onegin or Anna Karenina, and those characters kick me right in the heart-strings.

Purely from a story perspective, Werther feels like an opportunity lost and that undermined my emotional experience even though the performance was stellar in every other respect. Great food for thought there.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 23rd, 2016 at 8:55 am and is filed under Blog, London Life, The Good Things In Life, Writing Craft. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.