06 Dec 2006


Who is the most annoying character in opera? Preziosilla from Verdi’s Forza del Destino drives some to distraction, while others wish the conspirators in Ballo would assassinate Oscar in act one.

A number pine for a Turandot with no Ping, Pang, or Pong. A few of us wish that the three ladies never remove Papageno’s mouth trap in Magic Flute.

However, none of these potential candidates dominates an opera as does the title character of Massenet’s Werther, a mopey, pretentious, suicidal stalker. From the time he wanders in, intoning a hymn to nature that comes across as syrupy self-love, until he finally and laboriously takes his final breath, this over-educated proto-hippie draws a whole family into his morbid solipsism. In other words, your reviewer does not care for the bloke.

But what music! And to fully appreciate the rich beauty of Massenet’s score, give a listen to Michel Plasson and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, the musicians on the Virgin DVD of an in-concert staging at the Châtelet from April 2004. The recorded sound puts the listener mid-orchestra, surrounding the ears with a pulsing, sighing, aching performance that makes one wonder why a suite from the opera hasn't been created.

After a moody credit sequence, which pans an anticipatory audience (David Daniels is briefly glimpsed), the direction and editing indulgently fades and wipes between frequent perspective changes. Thankfully things settle down as the singers appear, and once our two stars are on stage, the focus remains on them. Thomas Hampson in the lead role indicates, obviously, that the performing edition here re-scores the title role for baritone. A brief note in the scanty booklet dances around the apparent absence of any evidence that Massenet authorized, let alone actually created, this alternative version. At any rate, it existed during his lifetime, and apparently he never made any effort to suppress it, either.

For much of the role, Hampson’s dark and forceful projection fits the character of Werther well, if lending itself too much to the dreary side of his persona (if there is any other side). After the brief opening scene featuring some chums of Werther, the score has only Sophie’s light soprano for a voice in the higher range. The great aria, “pourquoi me revellier,” is extensively rewritten, and it disappoints ears such as your reviewer’s, accustomed to the soaring urgency of the tenor version.

Susan Graham’s Charlotte showcases the beautiful fit of her voice to French repertoire, and despite her almost inherent vivacity and charm, she manages to create a truly conflicted Charlotte, devoted to family and duty but open to the urgent passion of this youth. She towers over her Sophie, charmingly underplayed by Sandrine Piau (but whatever does she see in Werther?!). Stéphane Degout does not go for the usual dull, even hard Albert, instead offering a man who is very clearly worthy of the devoted affection of his wife. His handsome voice and impeccable enunciation add to the attractiveness of his performance.

While leading the fine musical performance described above, Michel Plasson is captured many times mouthing the words enthusiastically, but with rather distracting facial expressions.

So this DVD offers a fine performance of the rare baritone version, with no staging but a dramatic and well-acted series of performances from the cast. If the visual elements does not retain its appeal, the musical performance can hold its own. For some of us, however, the curiosity factor won't be enough to eliminate a wish for a vivid staging of the standard tenor version.

Chris Mullins