Bloomberg, Jan. 22, 2010
Review by Jorg von Uthmann
Massenet: Werther, Paris, 14. Januar 2010
Star Tenor Kaufmann Triumphs as Suicidal ‘Werther’ in Paris
Rating: **** (4/4)
Gerard Mortier, in his last season as head of the Paris Opera, imported a production of Jules Massenet’s “Werther” (1892) from Munich. It was a clunker.
Nicolas Joel, in his first season as the opera house’s new manager, has brought in another staging of the same work, directed by Benoit Jacquot. It hits the jackpot.

Jacquot’s triumph is all the more remarkable as he’s a novice: this production of “Werther,” which had its premiere at Covent Garden in 2004, was his first step onto the stage.
He made his name as a director of sophisticated movies, often adaptations of classics. His first foray into opera was his 2003 film of Puccini’s “Tosca,” a mix of documentary and fiction, with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna.

In “Werther,” The filmmaker’s hand is visible in the natural acting of the singers and the clever alternation between broad scenes and close-ups -- in crucial moments he moves the protagonists to the forestage. Mercifully, Jacquot doesn’t try to update Goethe’s 1764 story of the suicidal poet who’s in love with a married woman. Massenet would easily recognize the garden of Charlotte’s father, her salon in Act III, the church square, and Werther’s study in the tragic finale. When Werther mentions “cette source limpide” or exclaims: “Voici le clavecin,” the limpid spring and the harpsichord are really there. (Last year’s production had only one set, a hangar with graffiti on the walls and a rock in the center on which Werther was brooding at his desk.)

Hypnotic Interiors

For the all-important Act III, set designer Charles Edwards was inspired, as the program indicates, by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916), whose eerily quiet interiors have a hypnotic effect. The atmospheric lighting (Andre Diot) greatly contributes to the sense of foreboding.
Without putting too fine a point on historical accuracy, the costumes (Christian Gasc) evoke the late 18th century when “The Sorrows of Young Werther” was a European bestseller. (When Napoleon met Goethe, he confessed that he had read the epistolary novel seven times.) Werther appears, as the author describes him, in a blue tailcoat with a yellow vest, a style which immediately became fashionable among sensitive young gentlemen.

The meticulous work of the directorial team would, of course, be pointless, had the Paris Opera not assembled a cast of first-class singers.

Passionate Tenor

Jonas Kaufmann not only looks the part of the romantic, lovelorn hero; he sings it with a wealth of expressive nuances -- from the most delicate piano effect to a passionate outcry. Although his tenor voice sounds almost like that of a baritone, he easily manages the A sharp in his aria “Pourquoi me reveiller,” the score’s climax. His French is impeccable.

It has often been said that the real victim of the Werther saga is Charlotte, the woman torn between marital fidelity and extramarital love. Sophie Koch, although labeled as a mezzo, has no trouble with her top notes and is wonderfully moving in her big coming-out scene “Les larmes qu’on ne pleure pas.”

Ludovic Tezier is a warm, manly Albert, Werther’s successful rival. Anne-Catherine Gillet is a fresh, chirpy Sophie, Charlotte’s sister.

Conductor Michel Plasson, 76, who was a fixture at the Toulouse Opera for more than three decades, has the French repertoire in his blood. In 1979, he recorded “Werther” with Alfredo Kraus and Tatiana Troyanos. He shapes the music with a loving hand. Some may find his approach too languid. I found it beguiling.

 back top