Werther, the epitome of the romantic German hero – in Massenet’s adaptation a sort of “French Tristan” – has found in Jonas Kaufmann’s ardent lyricism its ideal interpreter.
A splendid actor, the Bavarian tenor’s looks and voice
embodies the suicidal Werther with a rare aptness. In his
intensity, Kaufmann inhabits every inch of the role, his
instantly recognizable, dark, baritonal timbre adding telling
gravitas and making the character compellingly believable.
Vocally atypical from Werthers of the past (Thill, Gedda and
Kraus spring to mind) Kaufmann executes declamatory insights,
soft pianissimos and diminuendos vaulted by a powerful ringing
top to reveal all the nuances of the mercurial poet with a
persuasive naturalness. Fans will not be disappointed with his
delivery of Ossian’s poem (‘Pourquoi me réveiller’).
French mezzo Sophie Koch is a Charlotte to reckon with, her
timbre supple and vibrant (if less sumptuous than some other
interpretations). She makes an excellent match for Kaufmann,
deporting herself with a winning youthful elegance, helped in no
small measure by her ideal physique du rôle.
benefit from the excellent all-French supporting cast: veteran
Alain Vernhes is luxury casting as Bailli, Anne-Catherine Gillet
is an altogether vivacious Sophie, and the commanding Albert of
Ludovic Tézier deserves classic status.
created for Covent Garden in 2004, distinguished French
filmmaker Benoît Jacquot (Sade, Adolphe, Tosca) stages a
traditional production that grows into an absorbing,
unforgettable experience. As with the passage of the seasons in
the score, Werther’s journey from light to darkness – perfectly
attuned with Kaufmann’s obsessive, Winterreise-like descent into
his own abyss – is exquisitely enhanced by set designer Charles
Edwards, André Diot’s lightning and the handsome period costumes
of Christian Gasc.
Goethe’s “epistolary novel” – rightly
seen as a series of “tableaux-vivants” – is unmistakably
pictorial. The First Act set, a simple wall, is effective
despite its obviousness, while the Second Act is imbued with the
realism out the Barbizon-School paintings. In an appropriate
change of mood, an abstract emptiness of engulfing black
surrounds frame the remarkable beauty of the Third and Fourth
Acts. Subtly dramatic chiaroscuro lighting (calling to mind the
striking, shadow-lit interiors of the Danish artist Vilhelm
Hammershoi, with a subtle nod, in the final act, towards Carl
Spitzweg’s Biedermeier-era Poor Poet – conjures up the perfect
atmosphere and mood for the looming tragedy.
long overdue Bastille debut at 77, Michel Plasson – a Massenet
interpreter surely without compare today – conveys passion and
poetic feeling with all the idiomatic authority and finesse of
the elusive but evocative French style. At the singers’ service,
the venerable conductor lets the music blossom in all its
fragility, tenderness, gentleness and exaltation with becoming
In spite the self-avowed
“theatrical” aspirations of the production – Jacquot (together
with co-video director Louise Narboni) all but sabotages the
minimalist tone and gripping ambiance achieved in his staging
with absurd camera angles, distracting offstage and capricious
overhead views: it’s the only irritation (and serious
reservation) in a Werther that outshines its competition. It
must now be considered the preferred choice on DVD, even above
Peter Weigl’s abbreviated, lip-synched film (Image), Robert
Tannenbaum’s 2007 Karlsruhe production (Arthaus Musik), and
Andrei Şerban’s 1950s updating for the Vienna Staatsoper, with
the admirable Elīna Garanča and Marcelo Álvarez under Philippe
Kaufmann’s Parisian triumph – a
Tristanesque incarnation indeed – together with the ensemble and
production itself, makes this Bastille Werther unbeatable for
connoisseurs and a memorable introduction for newcomers to this
most intimate yet darkly eloquent of Massenet’s lyric dramas.