The American tenor Michael Fabiano burst on to the scene in 2014, reflected in his unique receipt of both his country's Beverley Sills Artist and the Richard Tucker Awards that year. Many lead roles in America and Europe have followed, but he's saved his first Werther for Australia – as Bryn Terfel did his first Falstaff. Does distance lend a little safety? Is it going to be the tenor's calling-card?

Michael Fabiano (Werther) © Prudence Upton
Michael Fabiano (Werther)
© Prudence Upton

Certainly, Fabiano would have thought he was taking few chances with this production – credited to Elijah Moshinsky, who hasn't actually had anything to do with it since 1989. Was co-director Constantine Costi even born then? On Michael Yeargan's transparent set (from 1989) there may have been some awkwardness in the movements of the tribe of children in the magistrate's family – which did little to suggest that Werther was anything but a stranger in their midst – and far too many bikes in the church scene, but Costi handled the essential business of creating the doomed love of Werther for Elena Maximova's Charlotte, its moments of hope, of hopeful passion, so quickly dashed once she's reminded of her duty to either her mother's memory or her stuffed-shirt husband.

But, whether it was Costi, conductor Carlo Montanaro or Fabiano himself, the real triumph of this role debut lay in controlling the bold intensity of his voice so frequently, in favour of a sweet and lower-key level of passion – a match for Massenet's frequent choice of the cello (played by Teije Hylkema) to underline deep feelings. This was especially the case in Werther's gloriously quiet arrival song on Christmas Eve in Act 3, such a contrast to Charlotte's black-clad angst as she decorates the Weihnachtsabend table and declares that “all thoughts are of him” (with cello).

Elena Maximova (Charlotte) © Prudence Upton
Elena Maximova (Charlotte)
© Prudence Upton

Another feature of this production not noticed before was the frequency of debates with God and his/her interpreters in charge of 19th-century morality. Werther's many predictions of his own suicide are often accompanied – especially in the overlong ending – by claims that this relief from his agonies of love should be welcomed by a Church that refuses to allow suicides to be buried in hallowed ground. And Charlotte has her own battle with God's views on the sacrosanctity of her marriage to Luke Gabbedy's one-dimensional Albert, especially in the moving line, “The tears we don't shed fall upon the soul”.

That line was addressed to Little Miss Sunshine, her 15-year old sister Sophie, played with believable mid-teens innocence and a thrilling soprano by Stacey Alleaume, alerting her to differences between Charlotte's love and her crush for Werther, and allowing the younger to offer Charlotte some comfort.

Maximova's Letter Scene was another quiet triumph with its dissonant minimalist accompaniment in the orchestra a match for her soft – almost silent – intensity on “Weep for me”. Did Arvo Pärt learn anything from this orchestration? And did Massenet learn anything from Puccini in high points such as the brief misclaim by both lovers that “Nothing exists apart from us”?

<i>Werther</i> © Prudence Upton
Werther
© Prudence Upton

It was at moments like that when the lovers were addressing each other directly that one realised how hard Massenet and his librettists had to work to overcome the limitations of Goethe's original work, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which consisted entirely of letters written by him. For the soliloquising of his epistles in the presence of Charlotte was much less emotionally effective than the moments when they threw away the original text and engaged each other. Mind you, I missed the direct simplicity of Goethe's “One of us three must go, so let it be me! This broken heart of mine has often harboured furious thoughts of killing your husband! – or you!! – or myself! – So be it!”.

But then, how could that compare with the dramatically quiet melding of souls as Charlotte kisses him at last on the bloodstained floor of Werther's grubby flat. Fortunately both youthful and lithe singers managed this in a manner that singers of old would have made look clumsy. We felt their eternal pain.

****1