The opening night of Irish National Opera’s ten-date Irish tour of Jules Massenet’s Werther makes a strong case that less is sometimes more.

At a glance, there is not much meat on the bones of the synopsis, based on Goethe’s novel The Sorrows Of Young Werther (1774). Man meets woman already promised to another. Doomed courtship ensues. Jilted suitor takes his life.

But as INO’s daring adaptation in Letterkenny’s An Grianán theatre underlines, the devil is in the detail. Even the barest bones of a plotline, in the right hands, can be elevated to extraordinary art.

Director Sophie Motley transposes the tale from 1780s Germany to post-war Ireland during the Rural Electrification program. The period is colourfully evoked in Sarah Bacon’s set where a clothes wringer represents the physical hardship of rural life before electricity.

The new-fangled electrical cookers, irons and hairdryers proudly displayed, seem to mark the dawn of a bright new era far removed from the beery, welly-booted parochialism of the locals Johann (baritone Owen Gilhooly-Miles) and Schmidt (tenor Eamonn Mulhall), and from the pervasive presence and rituals of the Catholic church.

The fateful gun—is there any other kind?—and the priest blessing the electrical wares seem like relics of distant times. In this staging the past becomes a prism by which to view the social mores of Ireland today.

This distilled version of Werther clocks in at around twenty minutes shorter than the average production. A by-product of INO’s nationwide outreach also means a reduction in orchestra size to twelve. In this highly polished production, the opera’s power is in no way diminished.

The story-line is probably less troublesome to pare and shave than Massenet’s sublime score, and it is to arranger Richard Peirson’s credit that music retains the narrative flow that Massenet’s pen so strongly dictates, as well as the swooning lyricism and the great layers of emotion in flux.

The orchestra, under the baton of Philipp Pointner, rises to the challenge, playing with notable physical zest in the fortissimo passages and with tremendous subtlety in the pianissimo moments—beautifully capturing the opera’s dramatic range. This is an orchestral score could stand handsomely on its own.

In the music and in the words, pathos abounds. As soon as Charlotte (mezzo-soprano Niamh O’Sullivan) meets Werther (tenor Paride Cataldo) a tragic love story unfolds. Having promised her dying mother that she will marry Albert (baritone Charles Rice), Charlotte is a soul tormented by the conflict in her heart. Poor old Albert is a solid, respectable sort, but when it comes to tugging heart strings he is no match for the poet and romantic that is Werther.

There are strong performances from Rice and soprano Sarah Shine as Sophie, Charlotte’s sister, but the show stealers are the two leads. Bountifully blessed by Massenet’s stunning arias and duets, both O’Sullivan and Cataldo also possess powerfully persuasive acting chops. In Act One, when Werther sings in ascending crescendo “I would give my life to keep forever those eyes…” neither Charlotte nor the audience doubts it for a second.

Utterly gripping, O’Sullivan’s performance in the three arias at the beginning of Act Three that ratchet up the emotional tension. Virtuosity means nothing unless it tugs at the heart, but O’Sullivan dazzles on both scores. Together, in the scenes where Charlotte and Werther bare their souls, O’Sullivan and Cataldo's exchanges fairly crackle with emotive electricity.

The night sky, teeming with star-studded galaxies serves as a backdrop, a reminder of the futility of human struggles, the brevity of life. And love? In the final scene Werther lies dying in Charlotte’s arms, bathed in a pool of moonlight. It is a gut-wrenching, painfully intimate tableau. Snow falls softly like a shroud, muffling the nearby strains of a children’s Christmas carol, but in this moment the rest of the universe ceases to exist.

A production of haunting beauty and sadness.

Jules Massenet
Conductor Philipp Pointner
Director Sophie Motley

Photo: Courtesy of Pat Redmond