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Len Mullenger:

A Lyric drama in four acts and five scenes after Goethe.
Sung in English in the translation by Norman Tucker.
Recorded live by the BBC at the London Coliseum on 13 December 1977.
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.
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Werther John Brecknock
Albert Patrick Wheatley
The magistrate Harold Blackburn
Charlotte Janet Baker
Sophie Joy Roberts
Johann John Tomlinson
Schmidt Terry Jenkins
Bruhlmann Nigel Waugh
Kathchen Janice Andrew
Hans Fergus Reid
Karl David King-Lassman
Max Sam Monck
Gretel Jessica Morris
Clara Susan Busby
Fritz Andrew Sheldon

Can I get the complaints out of the way first?

Why is this presentation highlighting Dame Janet Baker? Let me be clear. She is a truly magnificent artiste, a wonderful servant to music and, without doubt, the finest singer of her voice Britain has known. I have nothing but admiration for her. But she is not the main role in this opera; John Brecknock is. And he makes a incomparable Werther..

What are the advantages of such an opera in English? Something is lost in translation, I feel. I listened to the opera in French after hearing it in English and the French is better.

Well, that is out of the way.

The real star of this version is the silent contributor. Of course, I mean Sir Charles Mackerras. He is a fine musician as well as a first-rate conductor and, let me tell you that the two do not always go together. lie is a truly amazing man. He is loved and admired with profound affection but all who work and have worked with him. Some conductors, whom I had better not name, were positively hated. Sir Charles is never caught unawares. He always knows exactly what he is doing and why he is doing it that particular way. 1 have never heard him give a bad or inadequate performance. His performances of Janacek are the greatest ever. His Mozart is sublime.

The booklet accompanying this two CD set is excellent. It times each item, discusses the opera and the composer, has the full libretto in English complete with stage directions and some welcome photographs of the action.

The Prelude suggests Wagner. The beautiful string melody is very touching. The lovely, vibrant sound of the Magistrate singing with his six younger children who are trying to learn a carol are the best ensemble pieces in the opera. I am sure that this is where the writers of The Sound of Music got their ideas. But Massenet's music is not cheap or trashy. Harold Blackburn has a excellent voice. The carol itself is lovely but all too brief. Charlotte has vowed to her dying mother that she will marry Albert but things get complicated when Werther takes her to the ball. And, of course, that is where the plot is daft. How could Charlotte's father, a magistrate mind you, agree that his betrothed daughter go out on a date with another man. How could Charlotte do this herself?

John Brecknock has a lyric, clear voice reminiscent of the finest British tenor of them all, Wilfred Brown. In his first aria, 0 fair Nature, great is thy beauty we cannot fail to be impressed. Albert is not in such good voice but there is some fine orchestral detail, the bassoon solo is deliberately ludicrous and the orchestral interlude when Werther is at the garden gate with Charlotte is very beautiful. But it is in the. closing solo of Werther in the first act that Massenet's produces his most amazing music. The aria, Voices of rapture and of joy is almost unbearably passionate and the music at realisation Werther receives that Charlotte is to be another man's wife is truly heart-breaking, a real tearjerker, a large box of Kleenex job. And yet it is not cheap or sickly but just the straightforward interpretation of some lovely music and and incredible performance by John Brecknock. He outshines the rest of the cast.

Mackerras makes the music so tender and yet so strong. The sound he gets from the orchestra is another evidence of his knowing exactly what is best.

The Second Act is takes place three months' hence. It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon. What splendid horn writing and playing indicating the open air! Wonderful, optimistic music! Touch of irony here. The sound of the organ in the Protestant chapel is heard and the local pastor is celebrating 50 years of marriage. Albert and Charlotte have been married these three months. They sing of their circumstances while betrayed Werther sings of his. Werther's torment has John Brecknock in full and compelling voice in yet another impassioned aria. He has seen heaven momentarily opened and then immediately closed again. It is I that she could have loved, he sings and with what a voice and what secure articulation. Absolutely perfect. This music is even more realistic for those of us who have personally experienced Werther's situation, the deception of a woman's betrayal. Bruhlman is also distressed by Katchen's inconstancy. Albert tries to comfort Werther. He is not daft but there are a few uncomfortable cracks in Patrick Wheatley's voice. Charlotte's sister, Sophie, tries to cheer the men up but to no avail. What comfort is there for a man whose greatest joy have been taken away from him. Charlotte remonstrates with Werther and, in a typical bossy feminine fashion, orders Werther to stay away until Christmas. Goethe certainly understands women. Werther Words, Speak to my heart are heart-breaking and the final pages of this Act are sheer magic.

The third Act is set on Christmas Eve. Charlotte realises that she does love Werther. Albert knows as well. Charlotte rushes to Werther to find him mortally wounded in Act Four. She realises how wrong and cruel she has been to him and begs his forgiveness. It's a bit late, isn't it? He dies as the children sing the carol they have been learning for six months.

A truly great and moving experience. Not to be missed despite some flaws one expects from a live performance.


David Wright




David Wright




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