Opera News, April 2010
Massenet: Werther, Paris, January 2010
PARIS — /Werther/, Opéra National de Paris, 1/14/10
For most of its life in the French capital, Massenet's Werther was performed at the Opéra Comique, where it has enjoyed more than one thousand performances to date. The opera's promotion to the Palais Garnier came only in 1984; last year, /Werther/ had its first performances at the Bastille, in a production by Jürgen Rose. The new director of the Opéra National de Paris, Nicolas Joël, chose not to revive the Rose staging but to import Covent Garden's 2003 production by celebrated French cineast Benoît Jacquot, with a dream cast led by Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, Anne-Catherine Gillet and Ludovic Tézier. The occasion also marked the return to the podium of French music giant Michel Plasson. The first-night audience on January 14 gave both cast and conductor the rapturous welcome they deserved.

A few complaints were aimed at Jacquot, who exhibited the predictable virtues as well as faults of a filmmaker directing for an opera-house stage. When this Werther is televised later in its run here, the viewing audience will no doubt get the benefit of the lingering looks of the principals and their static intensity. It was more difficult to read the emotional turmoil of the characters in the vast spaces of the Bastille, where telling gestures and more lavish visual effects would have helped. On the positive side, Schmidt and Johann (Andreas Jäggi and Christian Tréguier), who are often dullards, were transformed into village drunks with a touch of Waiting for Godot about them. Kaufmann stepped into this world of sparse melancholia as an ideally romantic-looking Werther, steeped in tragedy from his opening notes. The German tenor offered a great assumption of the role, sung in near-perfect French; phrases were miraculously long and often capped by remarkably controlled soft singing. Little was missing from this magnificent performance, although purists might have asked for a dash more heady brilliance from this rising Wagnerian.

Koch was an intense Charlotte, emotionally entrapped from the moment she saw Werther. Charlotte's determination to fulfill her role as big sister and devoted wife was not perfectly judged by Jacquot: the character appeared to be in a state of subjugated unhappiness from the start, a condition that would have made her domestic life with Tézier's ideally sung Albert intolerable. Vocally, Koch paced herself carefully for the desperate last-act outpouring, in which her top rang out to thrilling effect. No doubt in future performances she will dare to give a little more tone in her lower register. As Sophie, Gillet was on the same level of achievement as her partners, finding more compassion and understanding of Charlotte's situation than most, while nailing the difficult rising soprano phrases with perky accuracy. Their father, Le Bailli, found Alain Vernhes in splendidly resonant voice, enhanced by his unique and pertinent projection of the text.

Initially Plasson seemed to be pacing the work too languorously, a tactic that made the first half of the evening somewhat portentous. But Plasson knows how to make this score tell in such a large and acoustically difficult theater; in the second half of the evening his interpretation found its bearings, and the rich density of Massenet's score became the edgeless bed of aural Romanticism that is the very essence of the composer.

  www.jkaufmann.info back top