14 Jan 2006


When you and I were young Maggie, there was only the fine Werther with Thill and Vallin and the Cetra recording with Tagliavini and his first wife, Pia Tassinari.

Nowadays, there are 25 versions available and this once half-forgotten opera has become a staple of the repertory. The opera was created in Vienna with my countryman Ernest van Dijck as the first Werther (there still is an Ernest van Dijckkaai in the heart of Antwerp though almost no Antverpian or Fleming still knows who Van Dijck was).

And now the Vienna State Opera has put their recent new production on DVD. You need not look far for the star of the performance. After a few seconds the first title reads : Inszenierung Andrei Serban and then you may ponder on that important fact for a minute before you can read the names of some other people involved in this production. However the DVD is meant to be sold and on the sleeve the names of the singers take prominence over the conductor’s, while Serban’s name is printed in minuscule letters. That is not correct either as Serban’s direction indeed weighs heavily on this Werther. Let me put it bluntly. I’m annoyed at the director’s carelessness with small details because otherwise this could be a performance on the level of Jonathan Miller’s production of Rigoletto or the less well-known Joosten production of Otello at Antwerp: updating an opera in such a way the piece will never be the same for you and traditional productions seem stale.

First allow me to be a grumpy old man before returning to greater things. Serban decided on updating this Werther to the nineteen fifties. You can almost put a year on it as a girl is playing with a hula-hoop introduced in 1958. Costumes and magnificent dresses (my wife tells me) are painstakingly correct and so are all the props. Therefore, some anachronisms simply jar. In those years, when even a bikini was thought to be risqué on a beach, no teenager like Charlotte’s sister Sophie would have dreamed showing her nude stomach as is now fashionable. Some people prefer not to use titles in whatever language in an operatic DVD because the contradiction between sung lines and the scene reality is sometimes too big. However I cannot help it living in a place a few miles from the language frontier between Dutch and French and thus being able to speak French. When Johann and Schmidt are singing: “nous les vieux” (“we the old ones”), I see on my screen two singers definitely not older than Werther himself and indeed playing soccer with the younger brothers and sisters of Charlotte. Involuntary, Serban makes it clear why the mother of the family died. There are 14 (fourteen) smaller children on the scene all claiming to be sisters and brothers of Charlotte and Sophie. And as most of them have the same height there must have been several pregnancies resulting in four or five children. Most productions will use 5 or 6 children and that will do. And as almost always the director didn’t pay attention enough to the words so that some superfluous anachronisms bring forth a laugh. Rocking Sophie claims Werther’s attention to “le premier menuet”. Change the words to “le premier danse” and there is no problem. Werther notes “le clavecin” while a piano is in full sight. So make it “le piano”.

But the main quality of this DVD is that the updating makes the story even more believable, even more emotionally wrenching. The fifties were the last decade of sexual repression, but also of an emphasis of duty over pleasure, of respect for marital promises, of well developed consciences and all the agony of Charlotte and the restraint of Werther suit the age perfectly. (Indeed one of my colleagues lived through the same hell and committed suicide as well and this was already early eighties). Most of us will recognize in this production some of the emotional problems our parents and their contemporaries lived with. The emotional gloominess is well illustrated by the giant tree which is the big set piece and as it has a platform around it this is an excellent place for watching and even spying what Werther and Charlotte are doing. While the tree changes with the seasons and becomes bald, so the many fine and colourful costumes change and darken too. But it is in the interaction between the protagonists that Serban scores very high indeed. With small touches he makes it clear that from the beginning Charlotte and Sophie are rivals. He succeeds in making Albert, Charlotte’s husband, a far more important player than he usually is and he has some clever ways, never against the music or the story, to show it. I’ll not reveal some of his solutions but the third act finale is strong stuff indeed and worthy of Il Tabarro.

And most important he is very ably assisted by a very talented team of singers. All small roles are very well cast. Adrian Eröd (Albert) is the somewhat sinister but very believable Albert. French critics were not very happy with Ileana Tonca as Sophie and I fail to see why. Her French is excellent and the voice is sprightly and a little sweet-sour, indeed in the best French tradition of a Germaine Féraldy. And as a teenager in love she succeeds extremely well. One almost regrets she doesn’t get her Werther and here too the updating makes her more believable than the traditional way. Mezzo Elina Garanča belongs to that latest category to burst on the operatic scene: the East-European (she is Latvian) singer like Netrebko and Gheorgiu who is extremely handsome and has a magnificent voice too. The voice is strong, pure, personal and only the low register is somewhat weak. The role suits her to a T; indeed suits her far better than some of the music she sang on her recent CD. Her Rossini and Bellini coloratura are still sketchy but great sweeps of beautiful sound in the late romantic repertoire show her formidable talent. And as an actress she is utterly convincing and fearless; smoking and inhaling just before her big aria. She will be a Charlotte for the ages when she improves her pronunciation as she was the only protagonist I had difficulty understanding.

Still a Werther stands or falls with the tenor: four big arias and several fine duets and I’m glad to report that Marcelo Álvarez is somewhat of a surprise. He acts with dignity and absolute conviction and succeeds in believing him to be a real person. No mean feat as he is a little bit suffering from that well-known operatic disease: Pavarottism; that means fasting before a performance and then wolfing down tons of food so that the romantic hero’s credibility starts to suffer. I’m not much impressed by his Italian roles. The voice is not incisive enough and lacks somewhat in colour. But in this Werther he shows rounded tones, good pronunciation and a fine use of dynamics. He knows how to tune down the voice to some fine pianissimo before once more launching with full voice into one of those murderous monologues. He is somewhat below his very best in what should be the high point of his role, the aria “Pourquoi me réveiller”. But he is not much helped by the conductor.

Swiss Philippe Jordan has a formidable orchestra at his disposal and most of the time he succeeds well in pacing the performance but now and then his inexperience shows in the tempi he chooses. Like many a youthful conductor, he wants to wring every drop of emotion out of a score and sometimes does it by tempi that are either too quick or too slow. He rushes his tenor during Werther’s second aria “J’aurais sur ma poitrine” and Álvarez proves he has reserves of breath. On the other hand the music comes almost to a standstill in Charlotte’s monologue before picking up too fast a pace.

That and some careless details make this DVD less than perfect. But yes, I shall have difficulties watching another Werther in wigs and crinoline.

Jan Neckers