show⋅stop⋅per, noun: An act, song or performer that receives so much applause as to interrupt a performance. [Merriam-Webster]

Or, to give a specific example, Piotr Beczała’s rendition of Massenet’s "Pourquoi me réveiller", Werther’s last moment of nostalgic happiness before he resolves on suicide. The audience at Barcelona’s Liceu spent a goodly while bravoing, baying, pleading for an encore, more in hope than expectation, it seemed to me, although I heard later that on opening night, Beczala had succumbed to their pleas and given a repeat.

Piotr Beczała (Werther) © Antoni Bofill
Piotr Beczała (Werther)
© Antoni Bofill

To be fair, if ever an aria performance merited an encore, this was one. It’s been five years since I’ve heard Beczała live and I’d forgotten quite how good he is. He imparts cavernous depth of feeling, his open voice is suffused with warmth and it’s huge. Just when you think he’s singing his heart out, Massenet’s lush score swells and Beczała finds an extra reserve to rise above it, the anguish-laden voice powering over the orchestral wave.

"Pourquoi me réveiller" was the high point of an all-round memorable piece of tenor singing, which itself formed the centrepiece of a memorably excellent production. Werther isn’t always an opera that has touched me: I have often felt a desire to slap the fey poet and tell him not to be so stupid chasing an obviously unobtainable woman (not to mention telling Sophie to wake up and consider the consequences of her flibbertigibbet behaviour). But with the quality of the performances here, Werther’s obsession felt completely credible, his descent into suicidal depression the inevitable consequence of instincts too powerful to be controlled.

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Charlotte) and Piotr Beczała (Werther) © Antoni Bofill
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Charlotte) and Piotr Beczała (Werther)
© Antoni Bofill

Beczała had plenty of top class support. His Charlotte, Anna Caterina Antonacci, was short of her most magnetic, failing to grab the listener in quite the same way as Beczała, but her voice is none the less a remarkable instrument, warm, expressive and beautifully shaped even if we were some way off hearing Antonacci at full power. Joan Martín-Royo provided an excellent foil as Albert, his steely baritone giving the man a harder edge than you often hear. Elena Sancho Pereg sang Sophie in a pretty, clear soprano as well as doing an excellent job of bringing out both the surface attractiveness and the underlying thoughtlessness of the girl. In the hands of Alain Altinoglu, Massenet’s lush score took on Puccini-esque levels of emotional swell.

Elena Sancho Pereg (Sophie) and Joan Martín-Royo (Albert) © Antoni Bofill
Elena Sancho Pereg (Sophie) and Joan Martín-Royo (Albert)
© Antoni Bofill
Willy Decker’s stylish production employs an unusual combination of full blown 19th-century costumes carefully colour-matched to abstract, geometric decor, both the work of designer Wolfgang Gussmann. Everything takes place in a giant, asymmetric blue textured frame; the angled floor of the back of the stage changes from white snow at Christmas time to the bright yellow sand drenched in the summer sun; a single moving wall creates scene changes. Props are few and mostly geometric. There is no realism in the movement around stage: rather, the positions of the characters symbolise their relationships: Charlotte and Albert face each other seated at the end of an impossibly long dining table; Charlotte and Werther execute a traditional Hollywood run into each other’s arms, only to miss and find themselves at opposite ends of the stage; from the outset, Werther fingers the pistol with which he will eventually kill himself.

At first sight, the production seems deceptively simple, but a closer look reveals that a lot of thought has gone into the detail. One of the more effective tricks was to use Johann and Schmidt, who normally do little more than provide comic relief as the town drunks in Act 2, as a bowler hatted pair of stooges who are present throught the action, giving proceedings a faintly surreal air as they carry the pistol, bring Werther’s letter to Albert or deal with various other plot devices.

Here was an evening in which staging, acting, orchestral performance and some outstanding singing combined to turn an opera that has never been one of my favourites into one that I can’t wait to see again.