Opera North: Werther, The Lowry, Salford

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The Independent Culture

With no chorus and no sweeping large-scale orchestral effects, much in Werther rests on the unerring and idiomatic portrayal of the two main characters at the intimate heart of Massenet's lyrical masterpiece. In Alice Coote and Paul Nilon, Opera North has found the near-perfect central couple for its compelling new production.

As the suicidally romantic young poet, Werther, Nilon presents a painfully affecting portrayal of a victim of a grand passion that can never be satisfied. In one gorgeous tenor set piece after another, the pick of which must be "Pourquoi me réveiller?", he proves a winning interpreter. Charlotte, the object of his desire, who has promised to marry another, is thrillingly sung and acted by Coote.

Though costumed to look somewhat matronly for the supposedly 20- year-old character, she is touching in the subtle development of her role through Massenet's increasingly impassioned writing. Charlotte's recognition of the constraints of her marriage to Albert, her gradual acknowledgment of her true feelings and her emotional abandonment of her moral scruples are beautifully modulated in Coote's burnished mezzo.

Out of a decent ensemble cast, Grant Doyle makes the best of the limited character of Albert, Donald Maxwell is a sturdily jovial Magistrate and sparkling Fflur Wyn makes a heartfelt Sophie. Under Richard Farnes's eloquent musical direction the orchestral element is striking, particularly the haunting saxophone that accompanies Charlotte's "Airs des Larmes". From the uneasy melodic dissonances of the prelude, Massenet's inventive matching of mood and music comes across exquisitely.

Farnes even carried off the riskily sentimental scene in which Charlotte's young siblings rehearse their "Noëls" in summer merely to provide a potentially kitschy aural vision of carolling angels at the work's decidedly un-Christmassy climax. That final scene is made unnecessarily messy here by having the dying Werther sprawl on, by, and at the foot of a bed, before finally expiring under it. And by having Charlotte lunge ambiguously for the gun as the curtain falls.

Despite this,Werther, its music soaring and searing, makes for an engrossing theatrical experience.

At Newcastle Theatre Royal, 18 and 21 November (08448 112121)