Opera Now, March/April 2010
Francis Carlin
Massenet: Werther, Paris, January 2010
Sheer Poetry
Never have so many good looking people singing French so well been on one stage
Benoît Jacquot's production of Werther is transformed in its Paris incarnation by the arrival of the magnificent Jonas Kaufmann, making his debut in the title role.

What a difference a cast makes. Given the bird by most critics on its first outing in 2004 at Covent Garden, Benoît Jacquot's production was transformed by astonishing singing when it arrived at the Paris Opera. That said, the evening got off to a bad start. Charles Edward's simple, dreary set for the first two acts seemed to have been shorn of original detail and looked even more provincial and stingy. Then just as Massenet really gets down to business in act III, the puritanical, Vermeer drawing room looked as if the Arts Council grant and true inspiration had finally arrived.

That was when veteran Michel Plasson's conducting picked up too. The colour and attention to textures were there from the beginning but the pace had been unnecessarily ponderous. In an evening of triumphs, it turned into an emotional victory for a conductor shunned by the Paris Opera since 1977.

At times, Jacquot sent Charlotte and Werther on walkies around the auditorium, always a bad idea, but at least his conservative approach served as an efficient foil for one of the most remarkable cast these eyes have seen. Never have so many good looking people singing French so well been on one stage. Bastille, generally a heaving sanatorium of coughs and sneezes, was the quietest yet.

Jonas Kaufmann in his first Werther smashed the clapometer at curtain call. He may not make it sound like an easy sing- only Alfredo Kraus had that flexibility- but the role could have been written for his enigmatic Caspar David Friedrich pose. Bar one or two rogue vowels, his French was superb, his use of words dramatically winning. What really impressed was not the muscular high register, which in truth sounded at times a little strained like Domingo, but his concentrated, crepuscular sotto voce.

A daring performance shaped by musical intentions and a shared triumph: bouquets also to Sophie Koch's superb Charlotte, Ludovic Tézier's cold fish Albert and Anne-Catherine Gillet's touching and generously voiced Sophie. If this isn't made into a DVD...

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