The New York Times, February 19, 2014
|By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, 18. Februar 2014
Things End Badly for a Poet, But Quite Well for the Tenor
Last February, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann had a triumph at the
Metropolitan Opera when he performed the title role of Wagner’s “Parsifal”
in the company’s very bleak but theatrically riveting new production. On
Tuesday night, a year later, Mr. Kaufmann was back at the Met in the title
role of Massenet’s “Werther” on the opening night of Richard Eyre’s new
production. It was another success for Mr. Kaufmann, currently the most
in-demand, versatile and exciting tenor in opera.
“Werther” is no “Parsifal.” Like many opera fans, I usually find Massenet
musically thin and emotionally cloying. Still, “Werther” is his most
distinguished and psychologically astute opera, a touchstone of the late
19th-century French repertory. Adapted from Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of
Young Werther,” the opera tells of an aimless and melancholic young courtier
in 1780s Germany, a dabbler in poetry, fixated on his own perceptions of
life. He falls impulsively in love with the impressionable young Charlotte,
the oldest daughter of the widowed Bailiff — the steward of a large estate
on the outskirts of Frankfurt.
In turning Goethe’s novel into an
opera, Massenet instinctively held back, writing a lyrically alluring and
harmonically rich, but refined score that allows for emotional ambiguity and
never indulges in bathos. To be a great Werther, a tenor must somehow be
charismatic yet detached, vocally impassioned yet ethereal. Mr. Kaufmann is
ideal in the role. He sings with dark colorings, melting warmth, virile
intensity and powerful top notes. There is a trademark dusky covering to his
sound, which lends a veiled quality to Mr. Kaufmann’s Werther and suits the
psychology of the character.
He could not have better support from
the cast, especially the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, in her overdue
Met debut, who brings a plush, strong voice and aching vulnerability to
Charlotte. The French conductor Alain Altinoglu led a beautifully restrained
account of the score, drawing supple, deep-textured and nuanced playing from
the Met orchestra.
Mr. Eyre’s production, while essentially
traditional, uses video imaginatively and has touches of modern imagery.
Opera fans who dislike updated, concept-driven stagings will find nothing
objectionable here. That’s the downside. This is one of those play-it-safe
productions that split the difference between faithfully depicting the
period and injecting a few contemporary elements.
Mr. Eyre, who made
his Met debut in 2009 with a vividly theatrical “Carmen,” has chosen to fill
in the back story of “Werther.” His penchant for explaining everything is a
little at odds with the cloaked dramatic character of the opera.
During the orchestral prelude we see through a scrim the death of the
Bailiff’s wife acted out in silence, or at least her death as Mr. Eyre
imagines it. It seems to be Christmas time and the Bailiff is leading his
children in singing. Then, a woman among them, clearly their mother,
clutches her chest and collapses to the floor. Soon we see a coffin being
carried to a shady burial area on the grounds, trailed by the Bailiff and
his children — six young ones and the two older sisters, Sophie and
Though it is not terribly objectionable to spell out the
story so literally, it is not necessary and, on balance, less effective.
Without this made-up silent scenario, Massenet’s opera usually begins with
the Bailiff rehearsing his inattentive children in Christmas carols, even
though it is the middle of July. The back story of the mother’s death is
revealed subtly through dialogue between the characters.
and costumes by Bob Howell, this production intriguingly blurs the
boundaries between nature and home life, between indoors and outdoors. A
series of receding rectangular arches frame the area, suggesting the walls
and roof of the Bailiff’s house. But the arches are askew to indicate that
things for this family are not quite right. As a theatrical design motif a
row of askew arches is becoming a little trite.
Mr. Eyre uses Wendall
K. Harrington’s videos inventively to depict trees swaying in the breeze,
the passage of seasons and, during one bold sequence, a flashback to the
ball where Charlotte and Werther, her escort for the night, fall in love.
Charlotte is already engaged to the eligible young Albert, who, when the
opera begins, has been away for six months.
Whatever my problems with
elements of the staging, Mr. Eyre deserves unreserved credit for the
detailed and involving performances he draws from his cast. During the
opening scene, with just a few phrases and gestures, the husky-voiced
baritone Jonathan Summers conveys the decency of the Bailiff, who, after
instructing his youngest children in their carol singing, is enticed by two
drinking buddies to join them at a tavern.
impressive soprano Lisette Oropesa is a sunny, winning Sophie, who, along
with Charlotte, has become a mother figure for their younger siblings. Yet
this Sophie is no chirping innocent. She has suffered loss and somehow
intuits that Charlotte is not as settled on marriage to Albert as she claims
When Mr. Kaufmann’s Werther arrives to escort Charlotte to the
ball, he is enchanted by the bucolic garden and the domestic scene outside
the Bailiff’s house. He sings an almost pantheistic invocation to nature.
Mr. Kaufmann delivers it with such delicacy and wonderment that this Werther
seems nearly detached from reality. During the charged duet with Charlotte
after they return from the ball, Mr. Kaufmann uncannily conveys the mix of
romantic yearning and self-absorption that defines this character.
this staging, when Albert arrives he is wearing a military uniform, which
provides a plausible explanation for his six-month absence and fits with the
honorable nature of the character as played by the robust Serbian bass David
Bizic, in his Met debut.
During Act III, which takes place in
Albert’s drawing room on Christmas Eve, a good Charlotte can almost take
over this opera and Ms. Koch came close. The distraught Charlotte, who has
been rereading Werther’s desperate love letters, tells Sophie in a wrenching
aria (complete with a forlorn saxophone in the orchestra) that keeping tears
back can destroy the heart. Ms. Koch, whose growing repertory includes
Wagner roles like Venus and Brangäne, sang with gleaming intensity, while
still suggesting a fragile, confused young woman.
Werther shows up
ready to kill himself if Charlotte will not leave Albert and succumb to
their love. Charlotte distracts him by pulling out a volume of poems by
Ossian that Werther had once translated. Mr. Kaufmann holds nothing back in
his fervent performance of Werther’s “Lied d’Ossian,” one of the high points
of this score.
The last act takes place in Werther’s study, rendered
as a cramped room almost hovering in the middle of the darkened stage.
Again, Mr. Eyre decides to make the story explicit. In the libretto, when
the scene begins Werther has already shot himself: We see him mortally
wounded. Here, during the orchestra tableau that precedes this scene, Mr.
Eyre shows us Mr. Kaufmann’s brooding, depressed Werther pointing a gun at
his head but losing his will. Then, in an impulsive act, he shoots himself
through the chest. Blood splatters on the back wall, a Martin Scorsese
For all the intensity of Mr. Kaufmann’s acting, seeing the
graphic suicide take place goes against the veiled nature of the opera. Once
the singing started, though, I didn’t think about anything else. During the
farewell duet with Charlotte, Mr. Kaufmann’s melting sadness and almost
crooned pianissimo phrases combined hauntingly with Ms. Koch’s tremulous
Mr. Eyre and the production team were politely applauded by
the audience. The ovations for this superb cast, especially the great Mr.
Kaufmann, went on and on.