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
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
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