Suicide tends to peak annually at Christmas and New Year: a sad, but familiar statistic. Often, a time of widespread happiness is conversely more painful for those of us in despair: our pain becomes a shameful, secret weight which would spoil everyone else’s dinner, and the rising tide of joy around us seems to drown us, rather than buoying us up. No opera plays upon this sad contrast more savagely than Massenet’s Werther, a tragic tale of unrealised and forbidden passion between a dutiful wife and her husband’s best friend, whose final, violent resolution comes at that most emotionally loaded of times – Christmas. With exceptional acting, stunning costumes, and strong singing to a simple piano accompaniment, Aylin Bozok’s modern and minimalist production of Werther at Grimeborn is breathlessly romantic, and searing in its intensity.

Katie Bray as Charlotte in <i>Werther</i> © Miriam Mahoney
Katie Bray as Charlotte in Werther
© Miriam Mahoney

Massenet moves Werther into action so fast that the first few scenes, rather than telling a linear plot, simply establish a predicament which is then played out to its full and terrible resolution. The young poet Werther takes beautiful Charlotte to a dance, and falls irrevocably in love with her; he senses she may return his affection, but when her absent fiancé (and Werther’s best friend) Albert returns to claim her, Charlotte still marries Albert as her dead mother had planned. When Werther miserably haunts the married couple, Charlotte banishes him temporarily in order to safeguard her marriage, allowing him to return that Christmas. Many passionate letters later, Werther does return, only to kill himself with Albert’s pistols, dying in Charlotte’s arms as her heart also breaks: it was Werther, not Albert, whom she truly loved all along, though her sense of duty would not allow her to admit it. Werther is dead but vindicated, Charlotte is alive but destroyed; one may well question whether she ever puts things back together with Albert afterwards.

One of the many things that I like about Aylin Bozok's directing is that she allows her characters plenty of time, not rushing them with too many spurious movements, giving her productions a pleasing balance of intensely stylised control and natural emotional expression. We begin with this at its most extreme, a ballet of slow movements during the overture, with the characters individually spotlighted in what we later realise is their final horrorstruck tableau. Bozok has added a mute character, the Ghost of Charlotte’s mother (Ada Burke), who haunts Charlotte relentlessly, appearing whenever she is faced with a decision: this embodiment of Charlotte’s sense of duty is occasionally distracting, as it means Burke is often moving across the stage, but nevertheless effective. Werther depends entirely on psychological trauma for its drama, and this insight into Charlotte’s thought process is definitely useful.

Massenet’s music is often dreamlike: rhapsodic and poignant, with mysterious moments of doubt and fear (sometimes at the most counterintuitive moments) implying the tragedy to come. Philip Voldman's expressive piano accompaniment glows with energy, always emotive. Sometimes, I love the pinprick simplicity of a piano accompaniment to opera: what we lose in orchestral sweep, we gain in clarity of line. It should never become the main way we experience opera, but occasionally, the piano can let us see a different side of the score: the beauty of the original negative, instead of the beauty of the full-colour photograph.

Adam Tunnicliffe makes an excellent Werther: ravaged of face, tousled of hair, blowsy of blouson, every inch the romantic poet. Goethe himself intended his Werther as a protest against the cult of sensibility, feeling that Werther takes his Romanticism too far; Massenet retains Goethe’s criticisms of his character, and Tunnicliffe successfully unites both sides of Werther: his admirably romantic devotion to his ideals, and his hopelessly impractical idealism. Tunnicliffe's singing grows in assurance and tone through the evening: in the early scenes, he too often succumbs to the temptation to shout, and did not always hit his notes to begin with, but the accuracy, passion and lyricism of his later arias makes up for a slightly gauche start.

Katie Bray is enigmatic and full of erotic charge as Charlotte, acting superbly at all times, her voice supple, smooth and heartbreaking. Bray communicates Charlotte's sense of duty and self-sacrifice without ever turning her into a dull prude; her inner turmoil is deeply moving. In the dramatic opening to Act II, Charlotte lies in a pool of Werther's love letters, utterly abject, while the bird-like prattling of her little sister Sophie is only a torture to her, who has known the agony of true happiness and rejected it: her final declaration of love for Werther was literally tearjerking.

Lucy Knight as Sophie and Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther © Miriam Mahoney
Lucy Knight as Sophie and Adam Tunnicliffe as Werther
© Miriam Mahoney

As Sophie, Lucy Knight is charming, singing with a delicate lightness which judges the acoustic perfectly, her performance full of "little girl" detailing (twisting her hands in her skirt, hiding her face in people's arms) which is adorably cute. If anything, I would have liked to see a little more emotional progression in Sophie, who does grow up slightly during this opera, but Knight's performance was consistent, brilliantly acted and well executed. Simon Wallfisch is a warm-voiced, strong and dependable Albert for whom we also feel deeply sorry; he truly loves Charlotte, and his bitter sarcasm as he hands her the pistols to give to Werther (knowing she will not give them to him) is harrowing. Thomas Faulkner makes a good Bailli, injecting warmth and character into a small role.

Sumptuous costumes by Bora Aksu look like exploded Victorian couture, full of gorgeous period details in silk and lace, reassembled to look beautiful yet damaged - like Massenet's characters themselves. Strong colour diction puts the family in deep red, Charlotte in white, and Werther in white and black: even his blood turns out to be black powder, which scatters across his crumpled love letters like spilt ink as he dies.

It may all feel self-indulgent, overly romantic and perhaps even a little inconsequential to begin with, but once Massenet has lulled us into that false sense of security, a profound tragedy of Greek proportions ensues. Bozok's vision of Werther is accordingly luxurious, plaintive and dark: and, I'd suggest, a must-see.

****1