In the post-war years of austerity, Benjamin Britten was at the forefront of a new type of opera, the “chamber” opera. Although principally focussed on new works, this pioneering venture aimed to widen the reach of live opera performance: small orchestras, no chorus, simple costumes and staging. In the last few decades, this genre has come of age with “reduced” arrangements of repertoire works, allowing performances in venues from public gardens to prisons.
My new arrangement of Massenet’s Werther is a complete re-working of the rich, Romantic orchestral score, adapted for only four players: clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Rather than being a mere reduction of the full score, this version attempts to create an entirely new chamber piece. Every player is a soloist with their own character: the clarinet agile and melancholic, the violin soaring and passionate, the cello rich and soulful, the piano full and supportive. Taken as a whole with the vocal lines and text, the intention is to conjure an atmosphere of intimate and direct expression.
The scenario of the opera is perfect for this approach: a “normal” domestic household is disrupted by passionate personal conflicts. Musically, this brings the sound-world closer to that of song, especially the mélodie so beloved of French composers. Massenet himself composed many volumes of songs, and this arrangement taps into that deep source.
French music is often noted for its transparency, lightness and delicacy, qualities that we will be exploring. Our production places the players on the stage, at the heart of the action. It promises to be a truly personal theatrical experience.
Arranger and conductor
ETO’s French opera season opens at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, on Thursday 1 October 2015, before touring to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape Maltings and Exeter. For more information and to book tickets visit www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.