21 Mar 2014
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
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.
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.Excerpt from Werther's aria from Act I of Massenet’s opera. Jonas Kaufmann (Werther). Production: Richard Eyre. Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. 2013-14 season. Video courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera
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.Excerpt from Werther's aria from Act III of Massenet's opera. Jonas Kaufmann (Werther), Sophie Koch (Charlotte). Production: Richard Eyre. Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. 2013-14 season. Video courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera
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.Excerpt from Charlotte's aria from Act III of Massenet's "Werther." Sophie Koch (Charlotte), Lisette Oropesa (Sophie). Production: Richard Eyre. Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Video courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera
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.
CNY Café Momus
This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus.. It is reprinted with the permission of the author