New York Classical Review, February 19, 2014
|By Eric C. Simpson
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, 18. Februar 2014
Met’s “Werther” variable yet Sophie Koch proves a Charlotte to die for
Massenet’s Werther is a difficult opera to stage at the Met. It is an
intimate piece, in its way—the lonesome young poet Werther intrudes into
Charlotte and Albert’s otherwise humble story, never meeting any heads of
state or hearing of any foreign wars. When his passion finally drives him to
suicide, the children under the window defy Charlotte’s lament of “tout est
fini!” reminding us that the world will continue right on without him,
almost untouched either by his presence or his passing.
Intimacy is a
tricky thing to convey in the world’s largest opera house, on one of the
world’s largest stages. Richard Eyre’s new production, which opened at the
Met on Tuesday with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, wrestles with that
challenge, but doesn’t always come out on top.
The third and fourth
acts, which approach the problem from opposite sides, are the most
successful. Charlotte’s library, where we find her reading Werther’s
letters, is big enough to rival that of Alexandria, making her seem a lonely
figure in a loveless marriage. For the fourth act, Werther’s dreary
apartment is presented in a claustrophobic box suspended at the back of the
stage, and as he struggles with his fate during the interlude his cubicle is
brought forward until it nests inside the Act Three set.
two acts, while mechanically inventive, are largely unimaginative
theatrically. Rob Howell’s sets are built on a series of rectangular frames
that face front, receding to create a telescopic effect. He has created
handsome late nineteenth-century costumes, and picturesque scenes are
projected on the back for both acts, a bridge over a woodland stream in the
first and a panoramic view overlooking a church in the second. Werther‘s
naturalism is driven home by a gigantic tree branch that dominates both
This is all fine as far as the setting goes, but Eyre’s picture
frame/telescope/accordion doesn’t really go anywhere. The set twists
slightly one way for most of the first act and slightly the other way for
all of the second, briefly resting at ninety degrees during an overly busy
ball scene. Scenic elements are projected onto it, but aside from that
striking Russian-nesting effect between acts three and four, it’s mostly a
giant question mark.
What really dooms this production to
“good-but-not-extraordinary” status is that it doesn’t say much about the
opera. A pair of scenes depicting Charlotte’s mother’s death and funeral
during the overture simply spell out what’s already explained in the
libretto, shedding no light on Charlotte’s sense of familial duty.
Meanwhile, the stage direction glides right past the disturbing quality of
Werther’s insistence and Charlotte’s protestations during their encounter in
act three, missing an opportunity to confront the violence of his obsession.
It doesn’t help that Kaufmann is the only member of the cast to wear the
same clothes for all four acts, giving him the air of an unwashed graduate
Fortunately, there’s music, too—some of the most expressive
that the French operatic tradition produced. Massenet prepared a version of
the role for a baritone ten years after the opera’s 1892 premiere (Thomas
Hampson was in fact the last man to portray Werther at the Met), and while
it is clearly less compelling than the tenor version, something about the
more shadowy sound seems fitting for the brooding hero. In a way, Kaufmann
offers the best of both worlds, singing with a dark timbre that makes you
worry he won’t be able to hit his B-natural—but then he does, miraculously
and with authority.
Kaufmann would not be everyone’s first thought
for the title role (his status as Earth’s most sought-after tenor aside).
His French is far from perfect, and his voice often feels heavy on the part,
blasting a lot of the lyricism of the first two acts all the way to Columbus
Avenue. There are times, though, when some rafter-shaking is called for, and
he delivered in a deliberately paced but emotionally charged “Pourquoi me
Reveiller,” drawing cheers that forced the conductor Alain Altinoglu to
pause, despite his clear desire to continue with the scene. When Kaufmann
really had to tone down the decibels, he did, floating his dying gasps to
A regular in Paris, London, and Vienna, the French mezzo
Sophie Koch is no stranger to the opera world, but she has until now been a
stranger to the Met. She was not vocally perfect in her debut on
Tuesday—there were catches here and there, and her pitch drifted frequently.
Still, her dusky tone—and especially her muscular chest voice—is an
excellent weight for the role, and she has no trouble filling the Met’s
auditorium with velvet tone.
Koch is also a captivating actress, and
she puts all of that dramatic force into her singing. She opens the third
act with three of the opera’s most emotionally demanding arias, almost
back-to-back-to-back. Her letter scene was poignant and raw, as was her
account of “Va! laisse couler mes larmes,” simple and introspective. Koch
has the wonderful gift of being able to sing entirely to herself, and yet
still project all of her dramatic and musical feeling to the other four
thousand-some people in the house.
The scene with her sister Sophie,
which comes near the beginning of that act, was memorable, at once
heart-warming and heart-rending. Lisette Oropesa is among the Lindemann
program’s most promising recent graduates, and to see and hear her as Sophie
was an absolute joy. Her beaming smile and sparkling voice lit up the stage
every time she came on. She sang with bright, playful innocence throughout,
and was wonderfully endearing when she flirted with the gloomy Werther.
Comparing laughter to a bird’s flight as she tried to cheer her sister, she
fluttered with breathtaking, giggle-inducing coloratura.
debut, David Bižić was a noble and caring Albert, singing with a usually
round but occasionally bare voice. Jonathan Summers, with an oaky voice and
warm demeanor, was a kindly bailiff, and the tenor Tony Stevenson and the
bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos were an affable and vocally solid duo as his
friends Schmidt and Johann. Christopher Job and Maya Lahyani were suitably
adorable as the two young lovers Brühlmann and Kätchen.
Werther is an
intimate piece musically as well as dramatically, and Alain Altinoglu was
content to take a hands-off approach when required, allowing the orchestral
soloists to take the lead. When he needed to control the ensemble with more
weight he could do that as well, leading a dark, searing overture, bringing
out the nature warbling of the first two acts, and achieving fleshier
texture in the gloomier third and fourth acts. He sometimes gave his singers
too much leash, allowing an aria or two to slow to a crawl, but for the most
part his pacing was taut.
The only choral work in this piece belongs
to the kids—and it’s a big job, as their “Noël” chorus bookends the opera.
They were more than up to the task, singing with clear voices, tight
ensemble, and perfect intonation.