Bloomberg, Feb 20, 2014
|By Manuela Hoelterhoff
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, 18. Februar 2014
What About Me? Hysterical Poet Commits Suicide at Met
Me! It’s all about me! Opera is full of narcissistic creatures with histrionic disorders, but is there anyone quite like young Werther?
Massenet’s opera about the suicidal poet opened on Tuesday at the
Metropolitan Opera in an unfortunate new production featuring the greatest
tenor of today: Jonas Kaufmann.
“Werther,” first heard in 1892, has
lots of tenor arias, beginning with the scene-setting ode to nature. Every
leaf in the woods glowed as Kaufmann looked around and sang with that
velvety tone that is his alone.
New to the neighborhood, Werther has
arrived at the house of the poised yet humble Charlotte to accompany her to
a ball. Enchanted by her country ways, he immediately plans for the future
only to learn that she promised her dying mother to marry Albert, a local
bore, probably a lawyer.
“Un autre! Son epoux!” he gasps as the
orchestra thunders his horror.
Over the next three acts, the virtuous
young woman of Wetzlar, Germany, deflects Werther’s increasingly desperate
I Want Charlotte
Goethe (1749-1832) was just in his 20s
when he wrote “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” partly basing his epistolary
novel on a Lotte he adored and the suicide of a young friend.
Werther’s letters darken as the joys of the world become completely entwined
with what he cannot have: a life with Charlotte.
Even though 100
years had passed by the time the French Massenet wrote his opera, their
spirits comingled in a rare fusion of text and sound. He captured the Sturm
und Drang that sends Werther careening toward death.
shooting himself with her husband’s pistol, Werther dies very slowly in her
arms as the sobbing Charlotte finally addresses him with the familiar “tu.”
That duet is a brilliant invention -- in Goethe’s story, she faints as a
messenger arrives with the news of his death.
The Met’s staging is by
Richard Eyre, who moves the show into the 19th century, a silly idea with
grave consequences, including cluttered sets and ghastly costumes.
Honoring the original period is sometimes best for
a piece. “Werther” is not a story of the corseted Belle Epoque, but the
diaphanous Enlightenment of the 1770s.
Everyone at the Met looks like
they escaped a production of “The Merry Widow,” though Werther’s dreary long
coat would be nice for a Sicilian funeral.
If Eyre has any insight
into these people, it doesn’t come through; especially not Werther’s
preening. He loves his blue jacket, leggings and yellow vest. It’s perverse
in an uninteresting way to deprive him of a look that would become the rage
in Europe for young men who read Goethe -- with a few engaging in copycat
Rob Howell’s sets are crooked. I guess that would be to
reflect Werther’s unbalanced personality? Isn’t that idea a bit dated?
And might it be time to ban staging overtures? Eyre mimes the funeral of
Charlotte’s mutti as we are trying to listen to Massenet’s ravishing
A few pretty projections by Wendall K. Harrington of ravens
and fluttering leaves almost erased the painful memory of an opening scrim
devoted to a Joyeux Noel greeting card. (Werther chooses Christmas to die).
In the pit, Alain Altinoglu conducted with sweeping
gestures at a lifeless pace until the last act, for which the impressive
French mezzo Sophie Koch, in her Met debut, worked herself into a dramatic
frenzy, having freed herself of a perilously attached pancake hat.
The last duet with Kaufmann was memorably beautiful. Such radiant singing
seared the heart and provoked one of the greatest ovations in recent memory.
But not before Eyre had Charlotte pick up a pistol to shoot herself.
What? Nothing in the story suggests anything so grossly melodramatic.
For an antidote, look to William Makepeace Thackeray who rhymed:
“Charlotte, having seen his body borne before her on a shutter, like a
well-conducted person, went on cutting bread and butter.”
is in repertoire until March 15. The production was made possible by
Elizabeth M. and Jean-Marie R. Eveillard.
Kaufmann and Koch also star
in a striking period production directed by Benoit Jacquot for the Bastille
Opera in Paris, available on Amazon.