The Israel Opera kicked off its 2018-19 season this month with performances of Werther, a dramatic opera in four acts by French Romantic composer Jules Massenet. Fittingly, the first production of the new season featured debut appearances in Israel by the three principals: the two lead singing roles and the conductor.
Werther, based on a partially autobiographical novel by Goethe, has been performed by the Israel Opera before. This is a new production, created originally for several French opera houses. Some of the stage design crew even came over from Europe to Tel Aviv— including the guest conductor from France, Alain Guingal, conducting the Israel Opera’s resident orchestra, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion.
Also making their first appearances with the Israel Opera were Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung in the role of Werther, and soprano Maya Lahyani in the role of Charlotte. What makes Ms. Lahyani’s long-awaited debut here particularly interesting is that she is Israeli; her career has been with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Werther is an opera that is notoriously short on plot, and even characters: there are only three other parts, besides the two leads, with any meaningful singing parts, and only one other— Sophie, Charlotte’s sister—with an aria. Even the arias sung by Charlotte and Werther are solos, though their story practically cries out for a duet. With such talents as Chung and Lahyani, a lovers’ duet would undoubtedly be a crowd-pleaser.
One of the most enjoyable moments in the opera was a Christmas carol sung by the children of the Moran Choir. It was over all too quickly, and had this audience member, for one, hoping—in vain— that we would have another opportunity to hear the gifted youngsters.
With such little action onstage, the production seeks to capture the audience’s attention by staging live actors as still figures in paintings. Indeed, this stratagem made for a stunning tableau in the opera’s opening scene, as the actors —including the children— stood so stock-still that one wondered for the briefest instant whether they might be actually wax statues. As this artifice was repeated throughout the scene changes, however, the novelty soon wore off, and gave the impression of being no more than a gimmick.
Whatever life was breathed into the production came not only from the arias rendered so beautifully by the soloists, but also from the convincing acting by Chung and Lahyani, who portrayed tormented souls sinking simultaneously into despair, culminating in the moving final death scene.
Werther runs at the Israel Opera in Tel Aviv through November 23. The next production, in January, 2019, will be Richard Strauss’ Salome, followed by Un Ballo in Maschera, Tosca, The Passenger, Cosi Fan Tutte and Simon Boccanegra.