The Star-Ledger, February 21, 2014
Ronni Reich
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, 18. Februar 2014
'Werther' at the Metropolitan Opera showcases Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch
As snow flurries whirl, a family gathers closely, mourning the death of a matriarch. Next, soft-looking pink petals fall as the season shifts to spring and then volumes of deep green leaves mark the arrival of summer.

And that’s just the overture.

In Richard Eyre’s new production of Massenet’s "Werther" at the Metropolitan Opera, picturesque projections, an admirable cast and a precise, impassioned performance by the orchestra make the most of a work that has understandably not become central to the canon.

Based on Goethe’s novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther," the opera focuses on a poet in love with a woman who has made a promise to her dying mother to marry someone else.

The work finds Massenet, who may be most associated with the ravishing melodies of "Manon," in a near-Wagnerian mode, with recurring music that signifies the title character’s torment. Weighty textures, anguished passages and poetic revelations in a romantic vein dominate the score; it receives a rich, cohesive rendering here, with heartfelt, meticulous solos showcasing the skill of the Met orchestra, led by Alain Altinoglu.

Due to the efforts of Eyre, working in collaboration with set and costume designer Rob Howell and video designer Wedall K. Harrington, the bleak story is also eye-catching. Naturalistic details of the house where Charlotte lives with her family get a surreal touch from frames that are sometimes tilted at an angle, as though something were amiss or part of a dream.

The video projections provide painterly portraits of the changes of season and immerse the audience in Charlotte’s journey as she tries to run to Werther for the last time. The elaborate approach is traditional with a technological twist — not so far from the Zeffirelli productions sometimes cited as symbols of the "old Met."

The title role suits the artistry of tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who has become a go-to for major roles across the spectrum. He uses his musicality and sensitivity to dynamics to lovely effect, singing of nature in the first act and crooning delicately into Charlotte’s ear.

His dark, viscous, caramel-like sound doesn’t always slice easily through the thick orchestrations, but in his Act III aria "Pourquoi me réveiller," it soars thrillingly.

Sophie Koch makes a stunning house debut as Charlotte with an impassioned performance of the aria "Va! laisse couler mes larmes." Her mezzo-soprano can take on a powerful, cutting quality in a moment of searing pain, yet in her early, carefree exchanges with her family and Werther, it has a berry-toned, sugary freshness.

Soprano Lisette Oropesa is perfectly cast as Charlotte’s sister Sophie. Singing of flower bouquets and happiness, the character is nearly the sole ray of sunshine in the piece, and Oropesa’s sweet, agile soprano is one as well.

With his deep, sturdy bass and imposing presence, David Bizic, also in his Met debut, provides an effective contrast to Werther as the soldier Albert, who becomes Charlotte’s husband. The small ensemble of children who sing an important Christmas carol does a fine job.

Eyre’s staging is largely lifelike, with Charlotte bristling subtly at Albert’s presence and Sophie sidling up flirtatiously to Werther. It is only the title character (who has scenes in which he freezes with a hand to his face) who can seem overwrought, but that may be inevitable.

"Werther" is the final new production of the season, and it is consistent with others that have not been overly dependent on novelty but have succeeded largely on the basis of the quality of the artists involved.

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