Broadway World, March 10, 2014
by Richard Sasanow
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, Vorstellung 7. März 2014
At the Met, Kaufmann in WERTHER Is to Die For
Maybe Richard Eyre's new production of WERTHER for the Metropolitan Opera, with strong performances by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and French mezzo Sophie Koch, should have been called WERTHER: THE BACKSTORY or WERTHER: A FOOL'S GUIDE. Eyre took what was otherwise a beautiful and interesting interpretation of the opera and added a prologue and other details (including action leading up to a self-inflicted shot in the chest)--just in case the audience needed some hand-holding to better understand what was going on.

The impetuous poet

Never mind. Let's get back to the good things: the singing.

Kaufmann was in fine form on Friday March 6 as the title character, after being indisposed earlier in the week and cancelling a performance. He obviously understands very well the impetuous nature of the character: the poet who finds himself head over heels for a woman who is otherwise involved. (It will be seen in the Met's Live in HD series on March 15.) The character, created by Goethe in "The Sorrows of Young Werther," is a landmark of German literature and sent generations swooning--many to the verge of suicide, enraptured by the romantic hero's plight. Kaufmann is nothing if not committed to his German heritage, as he has expressed in interviews and in his lieder concerts.

But this opera is a German classic filtered through the eyes of a Frenchman, Jules Massenet. It is strictly, and most definitely, French. The tenor understands that, too. Combining fragility and passion, the eponymous hero can be a challenge for tenors breaking out into heavier roles, but Kaufmann was in his glory. Is there another tenor today with his range and excitement? Whether in the understated Act I aria, "O nature pleine de grace," or in his gorgeously sung "Pourquoi me reveiller"--the work's most famous piece--in Act III, Kaufmann's voice was beautifully modulated and never broke the mood, even when the audience started cheering.

Vast vocal resources

Making a long-overdue Met debut, French mezzo Koch showed vast vocal resources, but I thought the production's concept for Charlotte was a little off. She looked so glamorous and gorgeous from the moment she came on stage that any red-blooded heterosexual would swoon for her, making Werther's response seem less impetuous. But Koch sounded great--her ''Va! Laisse couler mes larmes'' in Act III was stunning-- and I hope she finds room in her schedule to come back soon.

American soprano Lisette Oropesa was a lovely, knowing Sophie, Charlotte's younger sister (who can tell that there's something up with her sister's marriage). Her sunny "Du gai soleil" was a pleasure. As Charlotte's beau-cum-husband--a marriage made as a promise to her mother--Serbian baritone David Bizic made a successful debut, making more of his role through his hardy and sure demeanor. Baritone Jonathan Summers, as the Bailiff (Sophie's and Charlotte's father), brought a commanding presence and burly voice to his younger children, while showing his less-parental side when he is cajoled to join some friends at the tavern.

Authentic Gallic style

The French conductor Alain Altinoglu used his knowledge of authentic Gallic style to lead the Met orchestra in a textured and rich performance, as well as to help the singers to find the centers of their characters through music.

The sets by Rob Howell, who also did the costumes, cleverly used a series of arches--off kilter at the start, to show something was awry with the supposedly happy picture--as a unifying force element of the production. Wendall K. Harrington's videos were wonderful in portraying the passage of time and shifting scenes, while Peter Mumford's lighting help heighten the drama throughout.

The final scene, set in Werther's tiny room, shifted forward toward the audience, to draw us into the claustrophobic life from which the poet escaped through suicide. Massenet tried his best to make it silly, giving the tenor one last aria after he is already dying and director Eyre didn't help matters by adding action that is only hinted at in the libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann. No matter, in the hands of an artist like Kaufmann, the scene works in spite of itself.

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