The Sunday Times, January 24, 2010
Hugh Canning
Massenet: Werther, Paris, 14. Januar 2010
Jonas Kaufmann’s Werther is set to be a true original
A few days earlier, I braved Euro­star to catch something London should have experienced four or five years ago: Jonas Kaufmann’s debut as Massenet’s Werther. The Royal Opera had planned it for the first revival of its new staging by Benoît Jacquot, but Kaufmann withdrew to sing a new Carmen production in his home house, Zurich, and the RO wisely — great Werthers being thin on the ground — nixed the revival. London’s loss has been Paris’s gain, even though Jacquot’s production, with sets by Britain’s Charles Edwards, was no great shakes. Nicholas Joël, director of the Opéra Nationale, evidently thinks otherwise, for he has bought it from Covent Garden.

Although recovering from a cold that had forced him to cancel the dress rehearsal, Kaufmann’s debut in one of the most coveted and difficult romantic tenor roles must be accounted a personal triumph, especially in Paris and among an all-French-speaking cast. He is the first German I have heard in the role, but he sings clear, only slightly accented French, brings a broad palette of colour, with his dark baritonal timbre and ringing tenorial top, and looks the tormented, suicidal poet to the life, elegant and handsome in Christian Gasc’s period costumes. By his great Ossian solo in Act III, Pourquoi me reveiller?, he had thrown earlier caution to the wings and rightly brought the house down. When he is in full vocal health, his Werther will surely go down as one of the all-time greats. He was surrounded by luxury Francophone support, a rare pleasure in this opera until quite recently. Sophie Koch’s delicate, feminine Charlotte is the best thing I’ve seen and heard her do (good news that she will sing the role when the production returns to London next season), and Ludovic Tezier’s Albert, Anne-Catherine Gillet’s Sophie and Alain Vernhes’s Bailli could scarcely be bettered today.

The veteran maître, Michel Plasson, was making — astonishingly — his first appearance at the Opéra Bastille. He is one of the world’s most experienced Massenetistes, and if his approach to this composer now sounds a bit old-fashioned, he conducts this beautiful score with evident love and understanding. I haven’t enjoyed the opera as much in decades. Kaufmann’s Werther certainly vaut la visite, if you can lay your hands on a ticket.

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