‘Werther’ is a bold move that pays off for IOC

by Yayra Sanchez, Lister contributor

Last weekend, Massenet’s rich melodies resonated at the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City. On Friday, December 9th and Saturday, December 10th, the Independent Opera Company (IOC) brought us the heart-wrenching Werther. The local company made a bold move by launching their fifth season with such a somber opera and, according to stage director Carson Gilmore, by setting it in an Amish-style Appalachian community. And the gamble paid off.

Werther opens with an inspiring prelude, expressively played by music director Galina Barskaya. The orchestration is colorful and scenic, and her elegant interpretation of the piano reduction was a worthy start to the show. While the prelude reverberated in the hall, enveloping us in Massenet’s intense score, we saw a bare stage with no more than a couple of chairs.

Right then, we witnessed the first clash of two opposites, introducing a motif that will come back again and again throughout the production: the juxtaposition of two extremes.

William Grundler and Aubrey Hawkinson

The title role of the opera, the melancholic poet Werther, was sung by tenor William Grundler. The young singer managed a solid performance of this challenging role. Although at times it felt like the role demanded a more seasoned singer, he executed it with a pleasant tone and got better as the show progressed. Grundler’s acting was convincing and effective in demonstrating Werther’s anguish, and was decidedly moving with the opera’s most famous aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller”.

His counterpart, Charlotte, was portrayed by the beautiful mezzo-soprano Aubrey Hawkinson. Her acting was polished and her stage presence was graceful, with a lush sound that is a great match for the role. As with Grundler, there were a few moments when the part asked for a more mature sound; but, all in all, she sang the role with a delicate sensibility. Charlotte’s aria, “Va! laisse couler mes larmes”, was as enchanting as it was affecting.

Grundler and Hawkinson had good chemistry on stage and played their parts with credibility, especially during the last scene. It was touching and gripping, as they were committed to the intention of the moment and took the audience along on their journey.

Then, we had Albert, the man who comes between the ill-fated lovers. Played with great sensitivity in his singing and his acting alike, baritone Joel David Balzun brought this role to life with a refined voice. He delivered a hopeful and affectionate “Quelle priere de reconnaissance”.

Soprano Jennifer Weiss (above left) sang the role of Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie with the young energy that it requires; her acting matched the intention of the music. A very musical singer, her silvery voice fits the role nicely. The aria “Du gai soleil” was light and bright, which provided a good contrast against Werther’s gloomy demeanor. Sophie’s vitality served as a much-needed break from the seriousness of storyline, and Weiss captured that skillfully.

Phil Meyer was great as the Bailiff. Alluring as ever, the baritone performed with a strong and pleasing sound and effortless acting, creating a relatable and amiable character.

The Bailiff’s friends, Johann (David Samuel Childs) and Schmidt (David Connors) made a good team; they were amusing together and their voices sounded well-balanced. Connors’ bright tenor sound blended nicely with Childs’ warm baritone voice. Also featured was a children’s choir, directed by Sunjoo Yeo, singing with a clear and sweet sound.

Overall, I applaud IOC’s cast and crew for putting their best foot forward with this production. The sanctuary offered an ideal acoustic space, allowing the singers’ voices to ring smoothly to the back of the hall, and the piano echoed vibrantly. The singers’ diction was pretty good, overall: I was able to understand most of the French text, which is no small feat. Also, Gilmore’s stage direction was clever and successful. The austerity of the sets — which are more commonly lavish and complicated — and the simplicity of the movements and costumes, enhanced the gravity of the story. He took advantage of the wonderful score and libretto by Edouard Blau and Paul Milliet, and let them shine on their own, with uncomplicated but well thought-out actions. Massenet’s complex, raw score was the main focus, and Ms. Barskaya played it with poignant artistry.

IOC did a respectable job with a difficult work. Hopefully we’ll see more of this sorrowful but striking opera in the future.

IOC’s next production:

Double bill of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice — March 17 & 18, in West Los Angeles.  More details on the website

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