Opera News, May 2014
F. Paul Driscoll
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, February 2014
Werther, Metropolitan Opera
The premiere of the Metropolitan Opera's Richard Eyre staging of Massenet's Werther (seen Feb. 18) marked Jonas Kaufmann's fourth new Met production in fewer than three years — a statistic that gives some measure of the tenor's importance to the company, especially when one considers that his first Met appearance was just eight years ago, in a revival of the company's then-current Zeffirelli staging of La Traviata. In that 2006 Traviata, Kaufmann's Alfredo was somewhat at odds with his surroundings: his fresh, nakedly honest performance and raw-boned physique stood in bracing contrast to the overstuffed coziness of the staging. Since then, Kaufmann has built capital with the company — and won the devotion of its audience — with his splendid work as Tamino, Cavaradossi, Don Jose, Faust, Siegmund and Parsifal, all performances defined by the tenor's singular combination of personal glamour, emotional vulnerability and fiercely committed singing. But Kaufmann has technique that is equal to his talent. He is an artist with the looks and manners of a prince, who deploys his lean, dark-edged tenor with the shrewdness of a peasant: his effects are judged masterfully in order to deliver singing that is unfailingly passionate yet never savage or wild. Kaufmann arrived onstage in this season's bespoke Werther as a full-fledged superstar with a rock-solid connection to his audience: the thrilling, slightly nervy spontaneity of the Kaufmann persona defined Eyre's production, which moved the action forward from the rational atmosphere of the late eighteenth century to the more Romantic ambience of Massenet's own time. This Werther — the company's first new staging of the Massenet opera since 1971 —proved to be an ideal vehicle for Kaufmann in every sense of the word: the tenor drove the show all evening with the assurance of a man behind the wheel of a custom-built car.

Kaufmann's vocal and dramatic integrity was consistently impressive and frequently astonishing. He is not a rigorously refined stylist in the manner of Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus, whose Werther defined the role for a generation; Kaufmann's French vowels were occasionally distorted in the service of dramatic emphasis, and he sometimes changes the shape of a musical phrase in order to "lift" into one of the crooned piano moments that he and his audience revel in. Kraus's Werther was immaculately aristocratic, including his death scene — a departure from life as gallant and clean as that of Captain de Boeldieu in La Grande Illusion. Kaufmann's Werther died a messy death, with the shot fired in full view of the audience and blood spattered on the walls of his tiny room. The suicide registered as an unambiguous act of rage, the culmination of the anger that infused Kaufmann's characterization. He created a Werther who was wounded emotionally from the moment of his first entrance: the unhappy obsession with Charlotte seemed like a destiny fulfilled, and his attack on Charlotte in Act III had the petulant sloppiness of a child's tantrum — a calculated risk that worked.

Eyre's production concept seemed intent on repositioning the character of Charlotte within the narrative of the opera as a neurasthenic equal to Werther himself: the prelude was staged to show the death and burial of Charlotte's mother, and after the death of Werther in Act III, Charlotte reached for the pistols as if she were contemplating her own suicide. In her much-anticipated Met debut, the distinguished French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch looked appropriately maidenly or matronly in the belle époque dresses designed by Rob Howell — the chic Act I ball gown a la Worth was particularly effective — but made a puzzlingly equivocal impression vocally and dramatically, despite Eyre's reimagination of her character. After a few handsomely turned phrases in Act I, Koch sounded unsettled to the point of harshness for most of the evening, her manner chilly rather than composed and her acting generalized. This was nowhere more damaging than in the potentially glorious Act III sequence that pairs Charlotte successively with Sophie, Werther and Albert.

The production itself was effectively abstract in Acts I and II, when Howell's set designs were augmented by the imaginative video designs of Wendall K. Harrington and the well-judged lighting of Peter Mumford. Act III was far less interesting visually — Charlotte and Albert evidently lived in an enormous lending library —and the action sagged when Werther was not onstage. Lisette Oropesa, a potentially ideal Sophie, was badly blocked in her Act III scene with Charlotte, and David Bain slick Albert remained a dramatic cipher in his crucial final scene with his wife. Alain Altinoglu conducted the show with admirable politesse if little dramatic flair.

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