Intense Passions: Werther from Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

Massenet – Werther

Le Bailli – Justin Hopkins
Charlotte – Rihab Chaieb
Sophie – Elisa Soster
Werther – Enea Scala
Albert – Ivan Thirion
Schmidt – Daniel Arnaldos
Johann – Nabil Suliman

Kinderkoor Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Ballet Vlaanderen / Giedrė Šlekytė.
Concert performance.  Video director – Greet Swinnen.

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Ghent, Belgium.  Friday, May 7th, 2021.  Streamed via

As audiences are still not permitted to attend in person at its beautiful theatres in Antwerp and Ghent, the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen offered this production of Werther to a global public by streaming on its website.  The show will be available for two weeks until midnight, Central European Summer Time on May 22nd.  The performance was filmed in the Ghent opera house and reunited the house forces with conductor Giedrė Šlekytė, who made such an impression with her conducting of Rusalka back at the end of 2019.  This performance also marked the debut in the title role of noted bel canto tenor Enea Scala, alongside a cast of francophone and international singers. 

Photo: © Tom Cornille

The evening was credited in a mise-en-espace to Marcos Darbyshire.  With the orchestra on stage, most of the direction of the singers involved their positioning on a strip at the front of the platform.  The children’s chorus and Elisa Soster’s Sophie sang their closing chorus from the auditorium.  Otherwise, the principals sang to the cameras, always maintaining a sensible distance from each other, in order to comply with the current sanitary requirements.  String and percussion players, Šlekytė herself, as well as the children’s chorus were appropriately masked.

Photo: © Tom Cornille

Šlekytė led an impassioned reading, founded in a big, bold carpet of string sound.  She was unafraid to give the orchestra room to surge in the big moments, such as Werther’s declarations of love to Charlotte, knowing that, thanks to the microphones, the singers would still be easily heard at home.  The orchestra rewarded her with some extremely classy playing, although there were a few brief passing moments where the violins were not absolutely unanimous in approach.  An especial mention for Jadranka Gasparović’s eloquent cello solo, as well as Raf Minten’s alto saxophone adding a haunting tartness to the texture.  The brass was rock solid all night.  Šlekytė also brought out the numbing coldness and isolation of the Act 4 prelude, giving it a heart-breaking desolation that really made it feel that there was no way back.  Šlekytė is undoubtedly a major talent.

Photo: © Tom Cornille

Scala gave a thrilling account of the title role.  Even in this concert setting, using a score, one got a very full sense of his character’s journey, particularly thanks to his willingness to use the text to allow his portrayal to register.  The ease on high was most impressive, with open, full-throated singing up there.  His handsome tone also demonstrated solid musical instincts.  His French is good but the diphthongs in ‘enfant’, ‘printemps’, ‘longtemps’ etc, needed to be nasalized slightly more (though actually it sounded closer to my own Québécois accent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).  Thanks to the microphones, his tenor carried well over the surging band.  His was a Werther of staggering intensity, gripping the audience, and never letting go. 

Photo: © Tom Cornille

Rihab Chaieb has an ideal instrument for Charlotte.  Her orange-toned mezzo has wonderful sheen and is an exceptionally glamorous voice.  The tone is easily produced, forward and rounded.  The range of the part holds no terrors for her, and she sang ‘Va! Laisse couler mes larmes’ with a sense of resignation unafraid to dip into some juicy chestiness.  Yet, I’m afraid to write that she left me rather unmoved.  For a Francophone singer, I very much hoped she would make so much more of the words.  Instead, while the text was clear, her colouring of it was rather generalized and I missed a sense of her really living the character through the words – particularly in a concert setting such as this.  The Montréalaise mezzo does have a fabulous voice and I hope that, with time, she can truly grow into her interpretation of the part.

Photo: © Tom Cornille

The remainder of the cast featured house favourites and reflected the high standards one has come to expect at this address.  The youthful Ivan Thirion sang Albert with firm tone, emissions always even and a genuine depth of feeling in the way he communicated the text.  Justin Hopkins sang the Bailli in his exceptionally handsome, burnished bass-baritone – and in excellent French.  Daniel Arnaldos sang Schmidt in his agreeably peppery tenor, full of character, and Nabil Suliman sang Johann in an admirably solid baritone.  Soster sang her music with bright, pearly tone and managed to make her character sympathetic

Photo: © Tom Cornille

This Werther once again demonstrated the qualities that make this house one that is always worth paying attention to.  It was intelligently cast, very well played and conducted and sung across the board in extremely comprehensible French, which brought out the heartbreak and devastation of this piece to the fore.  Scala gave us a Werther of such uninhibited passion that it was impossible not to be captivated by the sheer intensity that he brought to the role, while Chaieb’s Charlotte was glamorously sung.  Undoubtedly worth spending a couple of hours with on a rainy Saturday afternoon – just keep the Kleenex close by.

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