Latinos Post, Mar 02, 2014
By David Salazar
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, 28. Februar 2014
Pure Genius from Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, Cast & Production in Revival of Massenet's Masterpiece
Transcendent Genius. Those are among the best words to describe what transpired on the Metropolitan Opera stage of Friday Feb. 28. From the stage production to the cast members, to orchestra, to even the audience members, the performance of Massenet's masterpiece "Werther" was a communal experience of visceral intensity and immediacy.
The production, while filled with some truly brilliant touches, relies heavily on the work of its performers. And this cast delivers in stunning fashion.

Leading the way as the opera's eponymous character is German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, arguably the most well-known tenor in the world at the present moment (with the exception of Placido Domingo). Kaufmann has given Met audiences a plethora of performances throughout the years always filled with supreme intelligence, intensity and superb technical precision; he is the consummate artist that not only sets the bar exceedingly high, but always reaches and surpasses it. His Werther might actually his most powerful performance yet at the renowned opera house as he manages to not only inject the character with the expected emotional intensity, but also gives Werther the nuance and subtlety to make him more than a raving lunatic. In other hands, the character comes off as rather unsympathetic and borderline frustrating for the viewer, even despite Massenet's gorgeous score. But Kaufmann allows the viewer to see the emotional process that makes Werther move from a timid man to a tormented soul that has no other way out but suicide; there is not one single moment that this writer could perceive in which Kaufmann was not completely committed to the character. In many instances, the moments in which he remained quiet were as effective, or even more effective, that those when he was singing.

Kaufmann's first appearance was an arresting one. Werther moved about the stage marveling at his surroundings, constantly searching in wonder; there was a certain child-like quality and innocence that immediately won over the viewer. Kaufmann's singing in the gorgeous "O Nature" gave a rather unique psychological portrait of the character that he would develop throughout the remainder of the performance. He started off with reverential tenderness in his phrasing. The voice slowly climbed in intensity until it reached the apex at the word "Soleil" but almost immediately pulled back to a more hushed quality; a restrained phrasing that actually permeated much Kaufmann's performance of the work and suggested the intense battle within Werther. The refined and elegant singing during the "Mysterieux silence" passage ennobled Werther and the unbridled and heroic intensity of Kaufmann's execution of the climactic B flat established the character as a man of formidable strength and depth. Right after he ended the aria, Werther pulled out his notebook in a rather frantic manner and started writing. The moment that Charlotte entered the stage, Kaufmann's Werther ran to the corner of stage right and hid himself from view; the fear, anxiety and even awkwardness all came to the fore. There was innocence to the moment but the viewer could not help but feel that there was something off about Werther's decision to hide. His first interactions with Charlotte were dominated by awkwardness; at one moment the character nervously bowed before her and even failed to kiss her hand in the salutary manner that was expected. Throughout the remainder of this scene, Werther stared at Charlotte incessantly. The nervousness continued in the ensuing ball scene. As the other couples danced about, Charlotte and Werther stood still in the middle of the room. In this brief moment, Kaufmann expressed his tentative feelings and his own seeming lack of self-confidence. In just a matter of seconds, the internal battle of the character asking himself "should I or shouldn't I" manifested itself in Kaufmann's stare at Charlotte until suddenly he stretched his hand out to dance with her. One almost expected the ensuing dance to be filled with awkwardness, but the elegance of execution between the two only revealed that Werther is far more refined that even he seemed to think. The final scene of the act, which showcases Werther's confession of love was one of the most powerfully executed of the night. Charlotte spends most of her time explaining to Werther how she came to take over the family while he marvels over her. In this production the two characters actually seem to be in their own worlds; Charlotte moved about the stage reflecting on her situation while Werther simply followed her around with his eyes; at times one wondered if he was actually listening to her and whether she was actually talking to him or two herself. These choices actually emphasized the lack of comfort the characters felt around one another and emphasized Werther's longing. When Werther finally declared his love, Kaufmann's voice burst out with unrelenting vigor and intensity.

From his first entrance in Act 2 it was clear that the hero was no more. Kaufmann's face betrayed anguish and remorse; the craze that was to come was already starting to consume the character. His delivery of "J'aurais sur ma poitrine," started off softly, almost as if Werther were weeping meekly; however as the music drew closer to the climax, the tenor made a gradual crescendo that eventually transformed into a pained cry as Werther stated "Tout mon corps en frissonne;" the voice rose above the ever-present orchestra effortlessly. Immediately after, Werther sat on the bench hunched over and covering his face; he did not budge. During the ensuing scene with Albert, Kaufmann moved away from his rival, his face and body trying hard to hide his guilt. The singing remained restrained during this section, emphasizing the music's ebbs and flows that describe Werther's inner battle to temper his ever-explosive passions. One could sense the pain that reciting words of loyalty caused for Werther; the phrases melted gloriously one after another. As he sang the phrase "Mon Coeur ne souffre plus de son reve oubliee," he made a sublime diminuendo as his voice rose for the "souffre;" that word seemed to hang momentarily, emphasizing its importance to Werther. Kaufmann made similarly breathtaking gestures at the end of the passage on the words "ma part" et "Bonheur." During the confrontation with Charlotte at the end of this scene, Kaufmann allowed Werther's passion to come to the fore and his delivery of his monologue "Lorsque l'enfant revient d'un voyage avant l'heure" was full of desperate longing. The opening lines of this monologue were sung almost sotto voce that almost reminded the viewer and listener of the character's child-like innocence of Act 1. As the emotional storm built throughout the passage Kaufmann's voice seemed to find renewed strength, expressing Werther's coming to terms with the possibility of death. The climactic "Appelle-moi" mixed Werther's pain and desperation with a sense of assertion; the subsequent repetitions of "appelle-moi" were more like sobs. One final moment worthy of note came right at the end of the act when Sophie asks Werther whether he will return. He responds with "Non! Jamais! Adieu," the "adieu" delivered with a high note. Kaufmann delivered that punctuating note as if he were shouting at Sophie, confirming the character's continued descent into madness.

Werther's appearance in the middle of Act 3 was one of the most finely executed moments of the production. Werther burst through the doors upstage and stood there fixed, his faced completely pale. For a few moments there was tremendous tension as he stood there like a rock, almost the ominous image of death itself. Charlotte, who saton the floor on stage right, looked over at him momentarily but immediately diverted her stare in fear. Kaufmann's Werther moved around rather stoically at the start of these scenes, but as it developed the viewer saw that this man's passion has turned into madness. The famous "Pourquoi me reveille" mirrored this development. The first stanza of the aria was sung with a rather hushed voice; the desperation only coming through on the climactic A sharp at the end. The final phrase of that first strophe was sung quietly and the word "printemps" melted away sublimely into nothingness. The second time this phrase came around, Kaufmann sang it forte and the "printemps" was held on a lengthy formata. The audience responded with well-deserved euphoric applause. During the ensuing scene with Charlotte, the madman completely took over. Werther threw himself at Charlotte, his repeated utterances of "Tu m'aime" becoming increasingly emphatic; the final one, delivered on a thrilling high note, was given a vicious accent that was followed by Werther literally leaping on Charlotte. The viewer could not help but wonder whether he was going to rape her or not. When she escaped his grasp, he ran after her and even pulled her to the coach and tried to force a kiss from her.

The entire interlude between Act 3 and 4 featured a rather lengthy internal monologue for Werther. Kaufmann readied the pistol and prepared to shoot himself in the head. However, he slowly resisted the idea and put the pistol down. He moved about the room, pondered on the subject and eventually, when he seemed to have gained the required strength, he grabbed the pistol and shot himself in the chest. This was one example of how some of Kaufmann's finest moments came from his physicality; the viewer could see the internal conflict without the need for one utterance from the actor. The final act was quite riveting as Kaufmann, mainly lying on the floor, managed to create a truly realistic and visceral portrayal of a dying man. His voice, almost sotto voce the entire time, had a disembodied quality to it that emphasized the character's state. In some moments, there was a delicate balance between singing and actually speaking, adding to the visceral realism of the moment. Near the end of the work, Werther seemingly comes back to life for a brief moment; Kaufmann slowly stood up and sang with potency and assuredness. The viewer could not be faulted for actually thinking that Werther might actually live after all. The ensuing loss of strength and slow death was truly painful to bear.

Hopefully from this lengthy description, the reader can get a sense of the nuance and intelligence Kaufmann brought to the iconic character. But even that description falls short of actually experiencing Kaufmann's genius in person.
The Met Opera's new "Werther" is easily one of the most fulfilling artistic experiences that this writer has ever attended. Every detail was delivered with utmost intelligence, polish and passion and it is impossible not to be utterly transfixed by it. The 2013-14 season has featured a plethora of operatic highlights, but the revival of Massenet's masterpiece may be the best of them all.

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