The Telegraph, 23 Feb 2014
By John Allison
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, 18. Februar 2014
Werther, Metropolitan Opera, New York, review
Massenet's Werther, performed by the New York's Metropolitan Opera, benefits from terrific performances by Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch, says John Allison
Faced with the challenge of filling one of the world's biggest theatres for seven performances a week, New York's mighty Metropolitan Opera is preoccupied with the disappointing attendance figures it recently disclosed. "The Met: Live in HD" series of worldwide cinecasts may be boosting interest in the art form and generating revenue, but some blame it for cannibalising audiences back home. So the Met's solution in its new production of Massenet's Werther is to call in today's most in-demand tenor: having Jonas Kaufmann on stage ensured it was standing-room only in the appreciative 3,800-seat house on opening night.

With an ability to mope and brood better than anyone, Kaufmann may indeed seem ideal casting as this Goethe-inspired anti-hero. Yet in the first two acts he resorts too readily to his trademark, mannered soft singing, suggesting that he is not really able to deliver a properly supported pianissimo. At least from the famous aria "Pourquoi me réveiller" onwards he seizes the role both musically and dramatically, using his dark yet ringing tone to give a performance of crazed, passionate intensity that leads inexorably to his suicide, depicted with a Scorsese-esque splattering of blood in Richard Eyre's otherwise well-behaved production.

For more consistent singing, there is Sophie Koch's Charlotte. Making her Met debut, the French mezzo achieves a new level in her artistry, finding layers of colour in her voice that make her aria quite heart-wrenching. As costumed by Ron Howell, she is hardly the down-to-earth, dependable feminine ideal for whom Werther falls so tragically, looking perhaps more like Julia Roberts as painted by John Singer Sargent.

Using costumes that place the action somewhere between the time of the opera's premiere (1892) and the First World War, Eyre – the third Brit to create a new production for the Met this season, after Jeremy Sams and Deborah Warner – concentrates on telling the story. He also adds a back story in the form of Charlotte's mother's funeral during the overture; more gratuitously, in a flash-forward at the final curtain we see a grieving Charlotte contemplating turning Werther's pistol on herself.

Peter Mumford's haunting lighting moves between wintry black-and-white and verdant summer green, and the realism of the slightly tilted set is skewed further by Wendall K. Harrington's inconsistently applied video – almost too much at the beginning, and very little later on. Perhaps the production is only trying to compensate for the opera's unevenness: the first two acts always feel as if Massenet is dousing Goethe in French perfume.

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