London unattached, June 21, 2023
by Fiona Maclean
Massenet: Werther, London, 20. und 23. Juni 2023
Werther – Royal Opera House Summer 2023
Book to see Kaufmann in ‘Werther’ – leave wanting more of Akhmetshina too.
What makes someone fall so deeply in love that they cannot envision a life without the other person? When the eponymous hero of Werther, a young poet, first sees Charlotte, a sweet-natured woman who is looking after her younger siblings in a courtyard, sharing bread with them and taking on the role of their mother, he is instantly entranced. She is beautiful, innocent and yet maternal and capable. The setting, a village near Frankfurt, toward the end of the 18th century, is peaceful, indeed the opera opens with the Baili rehearsing his children to sing a carol. But, that is just a prelude to what ensues.

Werther is based on the epistolary novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It’s regarded as a quintessential example of Sturm und Drang, a literary and cultural movement that emerged in the late 18th century in Germany. Characterised by individual subjectivity, intense emotions, and a rejection of societal norms and conventions, the movement sought to explore the turmoil of human experience. It was a reaction against the Enlightenment era’s rationality and the constraints of social order and authority. This novel in particular became immensely popular to the extent that ‘Werther Fever’ swept Germany and Europe, with young men even dressing in the blue frock-coat, black boots and buff waistcoats.

The opera, composed by Jules Massenet with a libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann, premiered on February 16, 1892, at the Imperial Theatre Hofoper in Vienna, Austria. This production of Werther, directed by Benoît Jacquot (revival director Geneviève Dufour) opened in 2004 and was last staged at the Royal Opera House in 2019.

The story revolves around the character of Werther (Jonas Kaufmann) and Charlotte (Aigul Akhmetshina). Despite his intense feelings for Charlotte, Werther respects her commitment to marry Albert, the man her dying mother promised her to, and suffers in silence, unable to be with the woman he loves.

Last night’s performance saw an overwhelming and impassioned performance from Aigul Akhmetshina, an ex Jette Parker Young Artist, who took centre-stage with a stunning, lyrical mezzo. In contrast, Kaufmann’s Werther was restrained, with elegance and immense musicality, though at times he seemed to lack vocal power. Instead, inner turmoil and melancholy were expressed through excellent dynamic contrast and phrasing.

Supporting roles were all exceptional. Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, played by Sarah Gilford, was a joyous free spirit, her lyrical soprano easily soaring through ‘Frere! Voyez… Du gai soleil’.

Alastair Miles as the Baili was beautifully characterised, the doting widower coaching his younger children to sing and caring for his older daughters. He’s just reluctant enough to be convincing when he’s encouraged to join Schmidt (Christophe Mortagne) and Johann (James Cleverton) for a drink at the local inn. The bucolic duo were a charismatic pair who offered their own insight into the storyline, vocally excellent with clear pronunciation – even with my schoolgirl French I could follow most of what they were singing without needing surtitles.

Albert (Gordon Bintner) is the man Charlotte marries because she’s promised her mother to do just that. Excellent vocal delivery with an apparent lack of awareness of the depth of feeling between Charlotte and Werther offered the audience an Albert who was suitably upright and straightforward.
Massenet’s opera was in part influenced by the work of Wagner and there are some fine orchestral interludes in the work, last night performed magnificently by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Antonio Pappano. Recurring and evolving musical themes pull the audience into Werther and Charlotte’s world. It’s an intense and moving score that Pappano really brought to life.

As the opera progresses, Werther’s emotional turmoil escalates, leading to his eventual tragedy. Consumed by unrequited love and despair, he decides to take his own life. The opera ends with Werther’s death and Charlotte’s realisation of her true feelings for him.

Kaufmann’s measured vocals were always present and most evident in the evocative delivery of his Act II soliloquy ‘L’amour que j’ai pour elle n’est-il pas le plus pur comme le plus sacré’ and in his final reunion with Charlotte. In ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ his passion was finally released

Akhmetshina’s Charlotte soared throughout the house and her “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” was a show-stopping moment, one that must lead us to anticipate great things to come. She is a true diva, with her immense potential recognised through a standing ovation at the end of last night’s performance.

This production of Werther relies on simple classic staging from Charles Edwards for most of the opera, who is also responsible for the creative lighting. It’s not a new staging, but the vast sky of the second act is a simple device which adds to the emotional intensity. And, he deserves plaudits for the lighting and set for Act 3 with its painterly interior and for the stunning opening to Act 4 as the blacked-out stage is punctuated by falling snow with Werther’s distant garret zooming into focus at the front of the stage. Costumes by Christian Gasc are elegant and effective. For the most part, though, this is an opera which relies on the music and acting rather than on complex staging devices.
It’s the first time in many years that I’ve come away from the Royal Opera House so overwhelmed by the orchestral playing. While there are moments for the singers which are truly tear-jerking, in last night’s production, the band led by Pappano was as much the star of the moment as Werther and Charlotte. Kaufmann’s Werther was expressed through a considered musical interpretation, albeit at times overwhelmed by Akhmetshina’s lyrical and dramatic performance.

A memorable evening – and one you should see for yourself. As my colleague said in a previous review

‘If doomed romance combined with great singing is your thing then you should see Werther. The Werther character has had a huge impact on our culture and Massenet’s opera presents the story in an accessible and moving way.’

  back top