Opera UK, May 2010
Hugh Canning
Massenet: Werther, Paris, January 2010
Jonas Kaufmann’s first Werther was originally planned for Covent Garden in the early summer of 2008, but his participation in a new Carmen in Zurich meant that the revival of Benoit Jacquot’s anodyne staging was cancelled. Now, only a year after Gerard Mortier imported JOrgen Rose’s Munich production as a showcase for Susan Graham and Rolando Villazón, Nicolas Joel, Mortier’s successor at the OPÉRA NATIONAL DE PARIS, decided to present Kaufmann in Jacquot’s Royal Opera staging.

The opening night in Paris (January 14) was a somewhat tense occasion since Kaufmann had been ill and cancelled the dress rehearsal. At ‘Je ne sais si je veille ou si je rêve encore’ his voice sounded throaty, and he approached the climax of his opening aria with audible caution. Even so, his dark, baritonal timbre, excellent French (apart from a slight tendency to lengthen a concluding ‘e’ into a German ‘ee’ sound) and tousle-haired romantic persona make him ideally suited to the role. Not since the young José Carreras at Covent Garden has Werther been more ideally incarnated physically, and Kaufmann’s jugendlich-heldisch Wagnerian tenor is a reminder that the role was created by Ernest Van Dyck, a famous Lohengrin and Parsifal.

By ‘Pourquoi me réveiller?’, Kaufmann had settled down, banishing any passing frogs in his throat, to deliver the Ossian-Lied with exalted, ringing fervour. In the absence of a French tenor of comparable vocal and histrionic qualities, Kaufmann must surely be the optimum casting for Werther right now, and one can only hope that Covent Garden might muster at least one more revival of the Jacquot staging so that London can experience him in the role. Sophie Koch’s Charlotte, very feminine and soft-grained of tone, proved an ideal partner. Of course, her French is ideally idiomatic (despite her German-sounding name, she was born in Versailles) and even though she lacked fire-power at the dramatic climax of Act 3, her ‘Air des lettres’ was heart-rending. Anne-Catherine Gillet’s perky but never soubrettish Sophie gave sympathetic support, again in immaculate French (she is Belgian). Indeed, this Werther was a rare pleasure in that, apart from Kaufmann and the Swiss tenor Andreas Jäggi as Schmidt, it was a Francophone cast: Ludovic Tézier’s Albert and Alain Vernhès’s Bailli surely cannot be bettered in these roles. In the case of Tézier, one of the outstanding cavalier baritones of our day—a Hamlet, Marquis de Posa or a Valentin in Faust—this was luxury casting.

In the pit, Michel Plasson was, astonishingly, making his first appearance in decades with the Opéra, and his debut at the BASTILLE. He is an old comrade of Joel’s in Toulouse (where he made many fine opera recordings as music director of the Orchestre du Théâtre du Capitole) and his stylish interpretation of Massenet’s opera, with Alfredo Kraus, Tatyana Troyanos, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, is enshrined on disc. Now 77, his tempos seem more measured, less impulsive than on his 1978 recording. But his feeling for texture, with Wagnerian sonorities but enough transparency to allow the words to cross the pit (no small feat in this theatre), remains valid. From a musical point of view, I haven’t enjoyed a Werther as much as this in decades.

Largely thanks to the cast, Jacquot’s production, though essentially conservative and representational, seemed marginally more interesting than it had in London. Charles Edwards’s ‘toytown’ church of Act 2 had vanished to create a Wieland-Wagneresque expanse of non-scenery, but that now looked completely out of sync with the rest of the staging. Even so, it was an adequate vehicle for Kaufmann’s debut. As we are unlikely to get a new Werther at Covent Garden, I would gladly endure a repeat of this one for the chance to encounter the German tenor’s doomed romantic poet in better health.

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