The world of opera can sometimes be hard for the newcomer to love as there are often fiendishly complicated and frequently unbelievable plots to get to grips with. Jules Massenet’s opera Werther is happily none of these: it is a straightforward story of unrequited love.

Scottish Opera, Werther © James Glossop
Scottish Opera, Werther
© James Glossop

Written in 1887, the opera is based on the famous novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, which tells of the hero’s infatuation with Charlotte, who is already betrothed to Albert, the man she promised her dying mother she would marry. She eventually does, to the artist Werther’s increasing despair, even as Charlotte’s regret builds. It is a miserable story – so sad that the Opéra-Comique in Paris initially rejected it for performance as it was simply considered too serious. After its successful première in Vienna, however, the Opéra-Comique relented and it was performed in Paris in 1893.

If the opera had just focused on the eternal triangle of characters, the story of the lovesick hero might have become a little dreary, but other characters from a wholesome large family house in Wetzlar populate and embellish the tale, set over six months, starting in July and ending on Christmas Eve. In Scottish Opera’s smart new production from Pia Furtado, the action is brought forward from 1780 to early 1900, and is told in a series of flashbacks from the snowy end of the opera, seen during the overture: Werther is onstage throughout, either as part of the action, or as observer. It is summer, and Charlotte’s father Le Bailli, solidly sung by Jonathan Best, teaches his six small children a Christmas carol while Charlotte gets ready to go to a ball. As her fiancé Albert is away, Werther takes the chance of accompanying her, and the seeds of forbidden love are sown.

An atmospheric fixed wooden set from Helen Goddard was partly artist studio with a high lattice window, but also became the exterior of the house and church, with a fly-in Edwardian drawing room for the third act. We could see snow falling through high framework of windows across the back of the set, which we kept revisiting throughout. Lighting by Oliver Fenwick delineated the scene changes well, with use of harsh glaring white for the pivotal letter scene. There were some wonderfully unexpected and quirky touches: the children haunted the production, from choir to messengers, sometimes just hanging out and witnessing the story. The opera has a couple of interludes, and intriguingly the children and supporting characters donned strange face masks and danced. Charlotte, in her drawing room, had a blizzard of letters posted through the crevices of the doors and walls as Werther became ever more desperate to steal her affection.

The music is a glorious score from start to end, full of tunes which illustrate the mood of the main characters. Francesco Corti led a tremendous performance from the Scottish Opera orchestra and it was lovely to hear the cor anglais, and most surprisingly an alto saxophone, getting plenty to do.

This was a performance where the quality of singers really counted and did not disappoint. Two newcomers to Scottish Opera as the leads, American tenor Jonathan Boyd and Hungarian mezzo Viktoria Vizin headed up a uniformly finely sung cast. Boyd really inhabited his role, in strong voice showing increasing desperation as he tried to turn Charlotte’s loyalty away from her husband. Vizin’s sturdy burnished tone matched well with Boyd, both voices filling the climaxes in the last two acts. Irish Soprano Anna Devlin was a particularly engaging Sophie, whose chief duty seemed to be to sing joyful songs to cheer up her moping elder sister. Her strong clear aria as Werther left the celebrations before a promised dance at the end of the second act was particularly moving – a voice to watch.

There were a few problems of balance, particularly in the louder passages when the orchestra tended to overwhelm the singers, and the switching back and forth from summer sunshine to winter snow became a little wearing, but on the whole, this is a performance well worth catching. As Werther finally accepted the last of a series of parcels offered to him during the opera – the duelling pistols – it was never going to be a happy ending, but as the final Christmas Carol was sung by the children, it was certainly well done.