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Performances

18 Sep 2019

A thought-provoking ROH revival of Massenet’s Werther

I’ve always wondered whether Massenet’s Werther actually works as an opera at all. It’s a fundamentally uneven work from a dramatic viewpoint which just happens to have one of the most glorious musical scores of any nineteenth-century opera. How I wish Massenet had written something like Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony; alas, what we have is a reasonably short opera that can seem unbearably long - and with a tenor role which is almost invariably miscast.

Massenet’s Werther at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Isabel Leonard (Charlotte) and Juan Diego Florez (Werther)

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

 

If the Royal Opera’s revival of Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production of Werther was in anyway rescued it was almost entirely down to the conductor, Edward Gardner, and the magnificent playing of the orchestra. It was, in fact, rather symphonic, almost epic in scale. I’ve often found Gardner willing to linger, almost be rather self-indulgent, in his conducting, but here he was quite the opposite - fluid, lithe, yet more than capable of generating a searing passion in the orchestra’s playing, something which was often missing on stage. Acts I (especially) and II still, typically, felt much longer than they were - but this is so common in this opera one just expects it. I’ve rarely heard a more thrilling, more Wagnerian, opening to Act I - but then Massenet rather loses the plot until the staggering depth he somehow brings to Act III. And perhaps it was down to the exceptionally powerful and urgent conducting of Gardner, but this is where the evening turned into something that veered towards being memorable. Just a little of Tristan to wash away whatever had happened before.

Jacquot’s production is in the tradition of Grand Opera, the height and depth of it often impressive. It’s undeniably elegant, though I’m probably not the only one who found the design of Act II giddying, nor the long corridor of open doors in Act III, centre stage, a little derivative of Velasquez’s Las Meninas. There are moments the design seems out of sync with the libretto - Johann and Schmidt, perched on a wall drinking, yet singing of a beautiful day under a gorgeous sun when the backdrop is of a sky leaden with thunder, seems careless. The assumption that cluttered stages make for clumsy acting is often correct, but Jacquot’s idea that huge sets dominate here works both for and against this production. As a depiction of a couple whose passion is a conflict of the platonic and the sexual, of the intimate and the distant, and of the hopeful and the tragic the sheer size of the staging can only really portray one element of this at the expense of the other. But perhaps the staging was an irrelevance because there was little in the way of intimacy, sexual or otherwise, between Juan-Diego Florez’s Werther or Isabel Leonard’s Charlotte.

Isabel Leonard (Charlotte).jpgIsabel Leonard (Charlotte). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

I’m not really sure how much of this had to do with Florez himself, a singer whom I have often thought is very much an acquired taste. This was his first London Werther - though the role is not unfamiliar to him. It’s always been the case that Florez’s acting has been somewhat stilted, even unconvincing. What was interesting about the performance was that in the first two acts, which generally require the voice to have both longer lines and be more lyrical, it pressed him harder and strained him more. The unease was palpable, the voice clearly so small, especially at fortissimo, it was sometimes just ravaged by the orchestra. Yet, he was like a man reborn by Act III - if hardly of the suicidal bent. The youthfulness of the poet from earlier assumed a maturity which suddenly had depth and richness - this was a Werther in reciprocity with his Charlotte. Florez’s middle register has undoubtedly darkened over the past couple of years, it’s both fuller and richer - pretty much ideal for the Werther of Act III, which it clearly was here. His pianissimos were gorgeous, breath-taking in fact, and if the high A’s in Act III sometimes betrayed reserves of power that weren’t always available to him it was less obviously a problem than earlier in the evening.

There are better singers as Werther - Kaufmann, for example - who just seem to be tragic in this role. If Florez probably lacked soul, there was a softness to this portrayal which was touching. He probably benefitted from Gardner’s fluid tempo - any broader and I suspect Florez’s comfort zone would have been challenged to breaking point. This wasn’t a Werther which had the luxury of languishing in melancholy like Kaufmann’s, or broke the sound barrier like Domingo’s. This was a Werther which was sometimes elegant, sometimes a little stressed - but rarely sounding like Massenet.

Juan Diego Florez (Werther).jpg Juan Diego Florez (Werther). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

Isabel Leonard’s Charlotte, on the other hand, was impressive vocally, even if she was a little frosty in her acting (such a common thread of this production). There was something rather matronly about this Charlotte - a mother figure who seemed to emote distance from her sister and the children, a not entirely convincing bride of Albert (but not convincingly in a loveless marriage either), and in many minds about her poet, but rarely of guilt. Often, she felt like she was in completely the wrong opera. But there’s nothing quite like a letter scene to bring out the best in a singer-actress and Leonard was superlative. That middle-range mezzo, which can appear so stifling for such large sections of this opera, was used for all it was worth - and where Florez was inhibited in his acting, Leonard used everything at her disposal to dominate the stage. This big aria was a moment of revelation, the poise with which it was sung uncommonly tight. Her voice does have considerable colour when she chooses to use it against the orchestra - in Act III, her tones against both the saxophone and harps were both careful and subtle. Her vibrato can sometimes sound a little thick, but this is not a voice which sounds ungainly.

Heather Engebretson’s Sophie was perfectly cast. Of all the lead singers she probably came closest to Massenet’s libretto: adolescent enough, virginal, innocent and with a rock-solid soprano which stood in stark relief to that of her sister, Charlotte. Jacques Imbrailo’s Albert is in one sense miscast - every bit as attractive as the mystical poet, and with a depth and range to his baritone you really wonder why Charlotte feels as conflicted as she does. Jacquot’s vision of this opera, its grand gestures, and the focus on the triangle of tangled love, does leave little room for smaller roles to excel. A small gaggle of children, singing of Christmas, are bookended at either end of the opera - cheerily at the beginning, rather sinisterly at the end.

Michael Mofidian (Johann) and Vincent Ordonneau (Schmidt).jpg Michael Mofidian (Johann) and Vincent Ordonneau (Schmidt). Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

When this production works it’s hard to put a price on its merits. If one can get through the sheer boredom of the first two acts - and everything really suffers because of that - there is much to admire for the last hour (though you have spend two hours to get there). Florez and Leonard are compelling in Act III, and Werther’s death in Act IV is not without raw power. Florez is not entirely miscast; his is clearly not a verismo Werther but nor, I think, will it be to everyone’s taste.

Marc Bridle

Jules Massenet: Werther

Werther - Juan-Diego Florez, Charlotte - Isabel Leonard, Albert - Jacques Inbrailo, Sophie - Heather Engebretson, The Baili - Alastair Miles, Johann - Michael Mofidian, Schmidt - Vincent Ordonneau, Brühlmann - Byeongmin Gil, Kätchen - Stephanie Wake-Edwards; Director - Benoît Jacquot, Conductor - Edward Gardner, Revival Director - Andrew Sinclair, Set Design - Charles Edwards, Costume Design - Christian Gasc, Lighting Design - Charles Edwards, Orchestra of The Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Tuesday 17th September 2019.

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