The Harvard Independent, April 4, 2014
|by Christina Bianco
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, 15. März 2014 (cinema)
On a High Note
Jonas Kaufmann may be the most sought-after tenor in the opera world right
now, and after the broadcast of Massenet’s Werther last Saturday, audience
members can be left with no doubts why he has been leading productions
around the globe. Even though the March 15th broadcast had a very
unfortunate technical glitch which caused the audience to miss the opera’s
last seven minutes of audio, there is no doubt that many audience members
would have left the theater with a positive lasting impression. From the
moment that Kauffman took the stage as the madly lovesick Werther, he gave a
performance that was both musically inspiring and artistically brilliant.
The title tenor role was incredibly infatuated with leading lady Charlotte,
and he languishes ceaselessly throughout the first few acts of the opera.
Even though this archetypical tenor role may seem superficial, Kauffman
presents the character with such conviction and intention that Werther’s
fatal attraction to Charlotte seems probable.
vair-tair) by Jules Massenet is loosely based on The Sorrows of Young
Werther by Geothe. It is the story of the doleful young courtier in 1780s
Germany as he falls impulsively in love with the Charlotte, the oldest
daughter of the widower Bailiff.
The first act opens with a scene of
Charlotte’s mother dying but then quickly transitions to some time later
when Charlotte’s father Bailiff, now a widower, is teaching a Christmas
carol to a children’s chorus (even though it is July). Then two of Bailiff’s
friends come and discuss how Charlotte, his eldest daughter, is going to be
escorted to a ball by a man named Werther. The audience is then introduced
to Charlotte, and Werther arrives and watches as Charlotte prepares her
young siblings’ supper. They meet and leave for the ball, from which they
return very late. By the end of the night, Werther is completely enamored of
her. But then his declaration of love is interrupted by the announcement of
the return of Albert, Charlotte’s absent fiancé. Charlotte ruefully explains
how she promised her dying mother she would marry Albert, and therefore Act
I ends with Werther’s deep despair.
After the first act Werther
continues to pine relentlessly after Charlotte, even though she has now
married Albert. And although Charlotte attempts to brush off Werther’s
affection, in the third act she realizes the true depth of her feelings for
the heartbroken Werther. But the opera still has a tragic ending, for its
protagonist takes his own life, and although Charlotte rushes to his side in
the final act of the opera, at that point she is powerless to save him.
The Metropolitan Opera’s adaptation of this was fairly traditional, albeit
very dark. The opening scene was set in a courtyard with a projection of a
small German town in the background. But even though the beginning of the
first act seems to take place during the day, the lighting would suggest
that the scene was taking place at a time more like twilight, creating a
darker ambience. And when the quick transition occurs to the ball,
everything was almost completely blacked out except for a strategic
spotlight on Werther and Charlotte. The overall darkness contributed to
Werther’s psychology and provided a sense of foreboding for the audience.
The music in Massenet’s opera is lyrically appealing and harmonically
rich. To be a success as Werther, a tenor must be incredibly versatile, able
to portray conflicting emotions while singing some of the most demanding
tenor repertoire. Kaufmann tackles the role from his very first aria with a
good mixture of warmth and intensity, along with powerful top notes.
In his first interview with Patricia Racette, Kauffman acknowledges that
Werther is one of the most versatile roles. He asserts that he tries to
portray Werther’s “sickness” by remembering similar situations in his own
life and incorporating his own real feelings into the opera. And Kauffman’s
dedication to his dramatic portrayal really sets him apart as an opera
singer. The director Richard Eyre (who has worked with acting legends such
as Daniel Day-Lewis, Judy Dench, and Ian McKellen) described Kauffman as a
“first-class actor” who could easily hold his own against any one of the
artists he had worked with. Kauffman was no stranger to this role, having
performed it several times before in other productions, but Eyre asserts
that when approaching this production, Kauffman kept it fresh and didn’t
cling to any of his past experience. Eyre also notes that his job as
director was merely to provide the context of the piece, and Kauffman did
the rest of the work.
The one thing that I thought was definitely
lacking in this production, however, was Sophie Koch’s portrayal of
Charlotte. Even though Koch has played Charlotte in many productions before,
her performance seemed somewhat flat. She remains very stagnant in the first
two acts, and even in the third act, when she begins to become her most
vulnerable, Koch still seemed to be reserved. This may have been due to the
fact that the role has almost become too familiar to Koch, because she
really lacked vitality, and this was especially apparent as she played
opposite Kauffman. However, Koch herself stated in her interview that every
night of a production is different, so I would be curious to see her play
Charlotte in a different production, and compare her differing approaches to
and interpretations of the character.
Overall, Werther was a joy to
watch. Although a stereotypical opera-plot, the music was breathtaking and
the production quality incredibly high-caliber. I would highly recommend
this production to both opera beginners and veterans alike.