The Met’s ‘Werther’ a tasty mix of singing, staging, acting and orchestral splendor
Visual elements in Richard Eyre’s striking production offset Massenet’s melodic shortcomings
Massenet’s Werther is a soufflé. If all the ingredients — sets, direction, singing, conducting — are perfectly blended, it will stand up just fine. But if anything is amiss, it will collapse.
Fortunately all the ingredients were tastily in place in the Met’s new production that featured the overdue house debut of mezzo Sophie Koch as Charlotte and tenor-du-jour Jonas Kaufmann as Werther, all blended by British director Richard Eyre and conductor Alain Altinoglu.
Based on Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, this is, at heart, a two-character opera. The melancholy (or simply depressed) poet Werther is besotted by the virtuous Charlotte, who is betrothed to the dull Albert. Charlotte is quietly passionate about Werther, but she won’t yield to him or to her own desires because she promised her dying mother she would marry Albert.
Despairing, Werther leaves her, then returns on Christmas Eve, is rejected (after a single passionate kiss), borrows Albert’s pistols, retreats to his garret, and commits suicide. The distraught Charlotte runs to the garret, arrives too late to save him and, in this production, contemplates using the pistol on herself as the stage lights dim.
All the important action is between these two. Charlotte’s teenage sister Sophie flits in and out of the opera exhibiting her own crush on Werther and adding some light-hearted relief. Charlotte’s father, siblings, husband and some townspeople make appearances, but they provide little more than dramatic and musical padding.
It is hard to imagine two performers more persuasive in these roles than Koch and Kaufmann. Eyre has directed them to accentuate their differences. She is cool, distant, and manipulative. He is manic, ardent, and menacing. She is costumed elegantly in late 19th century fashions. He is, at first, quite proper in a floor-length dark formal coat with a white waistcoat, tie or scarf. But as his mental state deteriorates, so does the outfit.
Eyre has provided a wealth of directorial touches to keep this melodrama afloat. Although only married to Albert for three months, Charlotte, in her body language, makes it clear that the relationship is joyless for her. She sits rigidly near him on a bench, just far enough to signal her emotional distance. Sophie exhibits her attraction to Werther by rubbing up against him on that same bench, only to see Werther jump away as if stuck by a hatpin. When Werther shoots himself, great globs of blood not only cover his white blouse, but also splatter the wall behind him and stain the bed coverings.
Special praise goes to Video Designer Wendall K. Harrington for projections that were constantly imaginative. Flocks of ravens roosted in trees when Charlotte’s mother was buried in a pantomime during the overture. The snow at the winter burial scene visually melted into a verdant spring filled with images of leafy trees. When Charlotte and Werther were dancing at a ball between Acts One and Two (which is when they fall in love), projections created the illusion they were whirling around the dance floor. Charlotte ran through a video of city streets and a snowstorm to reach Werther’s garret.
Equally impressive were the set designs of Rob Howell. Act One opens outside Charlotte’s house in a lush, pastoral setting complete with little walking bridges and gentle hills. Act Two is a quaint town square with benches and a shaded table. Act Three is a dramatic library and music room in Albert’s house, where Charlotte reads Werther’s crazed love letters, and where he confronts her and threatens suicide. Act Four, Werther’s garret, first appears at the back of the Act Three set as a distant box within the stage picture. Imperceptibly the garret moves forward and replaces the Act Three set, concentrating the audience’s attention on his suicide in this small space, which is now at the center of the stage.
These visual elements are essential to the audience’s appreciation of this opera because Massenet is no tunesmith. Just when the action begs for a melody from an Offenbach or Gounod, Massenet fails to deliver. Yes, there are some celebrated arias — Werther’s Invocation to nature in Act One, his Lied to Ossian in Act Three, Charlotte’s letter scene in Act Three — but even these, to my ears, lack a distinctive melodic profile.
As critic and musicologist Rodney Milnes writes in The New Grove, Werther is a “through composed conversation piece.” Massenet is a colorist with the ability to match any mood or action in the orchestral writing. He provides a river of perfumed music that is always beguiling but hard to remember. His writing for woodwinds is magical. The overall tint of the orchestral writing is dark, as befits the subject. It’s masterful in its way, but faceless.
Without choruses or familiar arias, the opera will only work if the audience is totally invested in the fates of the two main characters — and this the Met production achieved.
Koch and Kaufmann have sung these roles in major houses all over the world. The music is clearly in their bones, and throats.
In this run of performances, Koch joined the group of golden age mezzos currently at the Met: Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Stephanie Blythe and others. She has a voice that easily carries throughout the large auditorium. She is always on pitch. The sound is pleasing in all its registers. She demonstrated enormous volume in her farewell cry to her sister in Act Three, and tenderness in ministering to her younger siblings in Act One. She was thoroughly convincing in the Act Three letter scene as she re-reads Werther’s desperate pleas and realizes he has settled on suicide. Emotionally she held herself in reserve (no doubt at Eyre’s urging) until she cradled the dying Werther in Act Four. She is a tall and handsome woman who acts in a modern style. No diva antics for her. She is more an Eboli than a Carmen in temperament. Her voice may lack the sort of immediately identifiable characteristics of the stentorian Blythe, but Koch is a true artist nonetheless.
At first I thought Kaufmann was too much the heldentenor for the tormented poet, more a Tannhäuser than Werther. But the Met’s program note makes clear that the role was created in 1892 by Ernest Van Dyck, who also sang Lohengrin and Parsifal. So Kaufmann’s often ringing and aggressive tone must have been what Massenet wanted. Kaufmann has a well-controlled head voice to complement his golden top notes. At times I thought I was listening to a voice that would be more congenial as Samson (in the Saint-Saëns opera) but it worked, particularly in his lengthy demise in Act Four.
(According to both The New York Times and my friends in Syracuse, New York and Portland, Maine who were watching the live HD relay in movie theaters, the audio cut out for seven minutes of Werther’s death scene, causing much annoyance and yielding refunds. The Met blamed satellite problems.)
Baritone David Bizic was convincing as both a hearty Albert and then an aggrieved Albert, once he suspects his wife still loves Werther. He managed the transition from one to the other in just a few notes with a hardening of his voice as he willingly gave his pistols to Werther.
Soprano Lisette Oropesa was a sparkling Sophie, at her best when trying to cheer up her sister with an aria about birds. Jonathan Summers was a bit underpowered as Charlotte’s widowed father.
Conductor Alain Altinoglu seems to be a natural Massenet conductor. He kept the perfumed waters rolling, building tension along the way, relaxing where possible, and delivering an emotional conclusion. The Met Orchestra responded well to his leadership. He should have a bright future in the house.
This was the last performance of the season for Werther. Surely the Met will bring it back, and I urge you to see it, even if Kaufmann and Koch do not repeat their roles. Eyre’s overall conception, Harrington’s projections, and the Met Orchestra’s playing are worth the hefty price of admission.
What: Werther by Jules Massenet
Who: Metropolitan Opera
When: Saturday matinee, March 15, 2014
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Time of performance: About 3 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission
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