Abbotsford Masonic Hall, Melbourne – until 6 May 2017
Adding another layer to Melbourne’s burgeoning independent opera scene, Blancke Knochen Opera distinguishes themselves with a fine performance of Massenet’s romantic tragedy Werther.
Operas are no use sitting in dog-eared scores on the shelf. Operas are made to be heard and experienced and enjoyed. Blancke Knochen Opera takes Massenet’s score for sumptuously melodious opera Werther off the shelf and brings it to life in a bare bones performance that trades production values for heart and soul. On a cold, rainy Melbourne night, is it not more admirable to be out enjoying a classic opera score than sitting at home mindlessly watching reality television?
For their second presentation since forming in 2016, Blancke Knochen Opera has put the focus on young singers and quality music. An audience does not expect lavish staging when attending an opera for $30 in an aging, inner city hall. Instead of focusing on what is missing from the production, a look at what has been achieved is far more revelatory.
The full opera has been meticulously learnt, and is sung in French with English surtitles. Singers are very well cast in their roles, and their intense focus brings out the personal relationships of the characters with clarity. In short, the music can be simply enjoyed on its full merits with no weak links in the performers.
As a choice of second instrument, the cello proves ideal, providing the melancholy edge that the music richly needs. While piano and cello took a few bars to synchronise on opening night, conductor James Penn went on to hold the performance together with gentle fluidity. Playing an excellent arrangement by Penn, Grace Gilkerson gives a stirring performance on cello. Pam Christie, who also acted as repetiteur, plays with a deftly light touch underpinned by sterling musicality.
Director Kate Millett presents a unique staging, with cast members staying in the hall even while they are not centre stage. This promotes a strong sense of community and togetherness while watching the opera. Using the Abbottsford Masonic Hall’s elegant portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II as the central scenic element, Millett has seamlessly updated the action to 1950s Britain. The period costumes bring are well researched and prepared, and add visual interest to the production.
If there is one drawback to the performances, it is that some of the voices are simply too big for the space. This aspect, it should be noted, could be attributed to musical or directorial preparation. The capabilities of the lead singers are indeed impressive, but the quality is hard to appreciate at such intense volumes. The gentle nature of these dear characters really needs performances that draw in the audience rather than overwhelming them.
As Werther, Patrick MacDevitt captures the gloomy nature of the troubled young man. MacDevitt wisely makes no effort to soften or overly romanticise the man, simply allowing the audience to accept Werther for the sweet poet he is.
While perhaps presented a little too glamorously for twenty-year-old Charlotte, Allegra Giagu nonetheless brings out the sympathetic aspects of a young woman torn between love and duty. Giagu excels in the Letter Scene, opening the third act with an extended period of lovely singing.
In a gorgeous slivery grey brocade dress and velvet hair ribbons, soprano April Foster brings out the youth and innocence of Sophie. Foster and Giagu show the sisters’ loving relationship, with Giagu’s height giving Charlotte a maternal aspect with her younger sister Charlotte.
Finn Gilheany’s portrayal of Albert contrasts Werther’s romanticism with Albert’s sensible demeanour. Steve Carolane and Josh Erdelyi-Gotz give solid support as drunken local men Schmidt and Johann. Powerful bass Samuel Thomas-Holland is heard all too briefly Charlotte and Sophie’s father, Le Bailli.
Operas charging ten times the price will surely have abundant spectacle. As a value ticket, Werther is an admirable project from a promising company that deserves support.