The Classical Review, January 14, 2011
By Sebastian Spreng

Werther, the epitome of the romantic German hero – in Massenet’s adaptation a sort of “French Tristan” – has found in Jonas Kaufmann’s ardent lyricism its ideal interpreter.

A splendid actor, the Bavarian tenor’s looks and voice embodies the suicidal Werther with a rare aptness. In his intensity, Kaufmann inhabits every inch of the role, his instantly recognizable, dark, baritonal timbre adding telling gravitas and making the character compellingly believable. Vocally atypical from Werthers of the past (Thill, Gedda and Kraus spring to mind) Kaufmann executes declamatory insights, soft pianissimos and diminuendos vaulted by a powerful ringing top to reveal all the nuances of the mercurial poet with a persuasive naturalness. Fans will not be disappointed with his delivery of Ossian’s poem (‘Pourquoi me réveiller’).

French mezzo Sophie Koch is a Charlotte to reckon with, her timbre supple and vibrant (if less sumptuous than some other interpretations). She makes an excellent match for Kaufmann, deporting herself with a winning youthful elegance, helped in no small measure by her ideal physique du rôle.

Both greatly benefit from the excellent all-French supporting cast: veteran Alain Vernhes is luxury casting as Bailli, Anne-Catherine Gillet is an altogether vivacious Sophie, and the commanding Albert of Ludovic Tézier deserves classic status.

Originally created for Covent Garden in 2004, distinguished French filmmaker Benoît Jacquot (Sade, Adolphe, Tosca) stages a traditional production that grows into an absorbing, unforgettable experience. As with the passage of the seasons in the score, Werther’s journey from light to darkness – perfectly attuned with Kaufmann’s obsessive, Winterreise-like descent into his own abyss – is exquisitely enhanced by set designer Charles Edwards, André Diot’s lightning and the handsome period costumes of Christian Gasc.

Goethe’s “epistolary novel” – rightly seen as a series of “tableaux-vivants” – is unmistakably pictorial. The First Act set, a simple wall, is effective despite its obviousness, while the Second Act is imbued with the realism out the Barbizon-School paintings. In an appropriate change of mood, an abstract emptiness of engulfing black surrounds frame the remarkable beauty of the Third and Fourth Acts. Subtly dramatic chiaroscuro lighting (calling to mind the striking, shadow-lit interiors of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi, with a subtle nod, in the final act, towards Carl Spitzweg’s Biedermeier-era Poor Poet – conjures up the perfect atmosphere and mood for the looming tragedy.

Making his long overdue Bastille debut at 77, Michel Plasson – a Massenet interpreter surely without compare today – conveys passion and poetic feeling with all the idiomatic authority and finesse of the elusive but evocative French style. At the singers’ service, the venerable conductor lets the music blossom in all its fragility, tenderness, gentleness and exaltation with becoming musical intelligence.

In spite the self-avowed “theatrical” aspirations of the production – Jacquot (together with co-video director Louise Narboni) all but sabotages the minimalist tone and gripping ambiance achieved in his staging with absurd camera angles, distracting offstage and capricious overhead views: it’s the only irritation (and serious reservation) in a Werther that outshines its competition. It must now be considered the preferred choice on DVD, even above Peter Weigl’s abbreviated, lip-synched film (Image), Robert Tannenbaum’s 2007 Karlsruhe production (Arthaus Musik), and Andrei Şerban’s 1950s updating for the Vienna Staatsoper, with the admirable Elīna Garanča and Marcelo Álvarez under Philippe Jordan (TDK).

Kaufmann’s Parisian triumph – a Tristanesque incarnation indeed – together with the ensemble and production itself, makes this Bastille Werther unbeatable for connoisseurs and a memorable introduction for newcomers to this most intimate yet darkly eloquent of Massenet’s lyric dramas.


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