The New York Times, February 19, 2014
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.

Of course, “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 Charlotte.

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.

With sets 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.

The bright-voiced, 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 to be.

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.

In 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 effect.

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 anguish.

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.

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