Review: Werther, Royal Opera House

It’s important to me that I preface this review with the disclaimer that my knowledge of opera is limited. Really, really limited. This is the second opera that I’ve ever seen, the first being a touring production of Madame Butterfly in a North Welsh regional theatre. Predictably, the tone of this evening’s production, directed by Benoît Jacquot, is a little different.

To my eyes, the evening’s performance starts long before everyone takes their seats. For all its recent efforts to present to the public a more approachable face, the Royal Opera House remains something of a maze of ritual and tradition. It’s funny that a building should be able to have such an effect, but this really does shape how one naturally responds to the show itself; it doesn’t exist in artistic isolation, it’s underpinned by tradition, and it builds on that tradition.

It would be nice to be able to say that this production changed all of that, or reshaped how I perceive the interplay between historical and contemporary influences on opera, or something. In reality, I actually think that it solidified the preconceptions that I brought in. The staging is undeniably creative and more than beautiful to look at – more on that in a moment – but the experiences as a whole slots fairly neatly into the category of what someone who has never seen an opera might tell you to expect from an opera.

Naturally, the performers are excellent. It’s a relatively small and tight cast with a lot of weight to carry between them, but it’s carried in such a way that it’s easy to forget it’s there. In the world of the story, with its emotional extremes and doom laden horizons, such physical vocal exertion feels intuitive.

It would be fair to say that this opera and, I suspect, the genre more generally, is in part intended more as an emotional and visual experience than just a narrative. In this case, It wouldn’t achieve anything like what it does without its ridiculously impressive set. It’s raked at an obscene angle, to the extent that the performers are literally always headed tangibly up or downhill. In turn, however, this creates distance, offering set designer/possibly magician Charles Edwards space in which to build his eerily realistic locations. As the narrative progresses and the fates unfurl themselves, the walls close in with them, forcing the focus to narrow until the inevitable is unavoidable.

So – while it would be untrue to claim that my perceptions were shattered, it would be equally so to pretend that I’m not blown away. The rigour and detail is genuinely awe inspiring, as are the costumes, courtesy of Christian Gasc. I’m very much aware that I have nothing like the expertise necessary to really ‘judge’ a production that I understand so little about, but I can definitely say that I enjoy and appreciate it.

Werther is playing the Royal Opera House until 5 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Opera House website