Wall Street Journal, Feb. 19, 2014
By Heidi Waleson
Massenet: Werther, Metropolitan Opera, 18. Februar 2014
A Taut Drama of Passion, Obsession and Pursuit
The new production of Massenet's "Werther" at the Metropolitan Opera gets way past the sentimental surface of the tale.
For the new production of Jules Massenet's "Werther" (1892), which opened on Tuesday at the Metropolitan Opera, director Richard Eyre, conductor Alain Altinoglu and a pair of stunning leads get way past the surface of the tale. This is not just the sentimental story of a lovesick poet who kills himself because of an unavailable woman, but rather a taut drama about passion, obsession and pursuit. With Mr. Eyre's fiercely precise directing and the riveting performances of tenor Jonas Kaufmann as the unhappy Werther and mezzo Sophie Koch —making her house debut—as Charlotte, the woman he loves, you will believe every moment of it.

Based on Goethe's iconic 1774 novel, "The Sorrows of Young Werther," the opera tells the story of the title character, a young poet, who falls madly in love with Charlotte, only to learn that she is engaged to Albert, whom she promised her now-dead mother that she would marry. Though drawn to Werther, Charlotte chooses duty over attraction, marries Albert and sends Werther away, but his letters bore into her soul. He returns on Christmas Eve and she rejects him again, but repents when he shoots himself and dies in her arms.

Mr. Eyre has updated the piece to the 1890s, and Rob Howell's quasirepresentational sets and period costumes, Peter Mumford's shadowy lighting and Wendall K. Harrington's fluid projections give it a moody, subdued color palette, a sense of the changing seasons and a constant, inexorable flow. One ingenious choice is to stage the orchestral interludes, beginning with the overture, during which we see the sudden death of Charlotte's mother on the Christmas before the action of the opera begins, making her spirit, and the force of Charlotte's promise, tangible. Death, associated with Christmas, thus frames the story even more powerfully.

Mr. Kaufmann plays Werther not just as a Romantic hero but as a tragic one, an eternal outsider in the conventional domestic world of the village. From his first entrance, wearing a long black coat, he seems like a creature from another planet, one whose feelings are too intense for concealment. The dark, resonant timbre of his tenor gives him weight; its swordlike directness makes him unstoppable. Every moment has the exact vocal color it needs. In his first declaration of love, you feel Werther's unguarded nakedness; when he hears about Charlotte's promise, and tells her "I will die, Charlotte," his stricken face and his bleak voice make you believe him absolutely. His Act III aria, "Pourquoi me réveiller," is such a real cry of psychic pain that the thunderous applause afterward feels like an intrusion on a private moment.

Charlotte is usually played as a warm, earth-mother type, taking care of the brood of younger children, but this production takes a different, more intriguing direction. Ms. Koch's Charlotte starts out quite regal and reserved, the responsible member of the family, which makes Werther's pursuit of her all the more interesting. Her focused, laserlike mezzo, with its fast vibrato and dramatic amplitude, is more queenly than gentle, and as the evening goes on, you feel her holding out against him with all her considerable strength. The costumes tell the story as well: An elegant ball gown with full-length gloves in Act I and a dress buttoned up to the neck in Act II are her armor. In Act III, reading Werther's letters, she wears a nightgown and robe and is undefended. When she finally lets her feelings overwhelm her in a searing "Va! Laisse couler mes larmes" (Let my tears flow), she is emotionally revealed.

Messrs. Eyre and Altinoglu build the dramatic arc of pursuit and retreat with physical realism and musical specificity, upping Werther's intensity and breaking down Charlotte's resistance step by step. For Werther's sudden arrival at Charlotte's house in Act III, the stage goes suddenly dark, with the only light on Mr. Kaufmann in the doorway and Ms. Koch cowering near the wall; his halting progress toward her, mirrored in the music, feels as though he were stalking his prey. Later in the scene, he chases her around the room and finally throws himself on her. The death scene of Act IV, which can seem artificially prolonged, feels exactly right here—played in a tiny bare box of a room, suspended in the darkness. The two come together at last, all fear and defenses gone. And in the last moment before the final blackout, Ms. Koch picks up the gun, making the scene into a kind of French "Liebestod," in which true love is possible only in mutual death.

Other characters are, appropriately, swept aside by the gale force of this duo. Lisette Oropesa brings a bright, pealing soprano to the role of Sophie, Charlotte's younger, less complex sister, who loves Werther; as Albert, costumed in a military uniform that underlines his martinet character, the eloquent baritone David Bižić constructs his own dramatic arc from sincerity to complacency and, finally, jealous anger. Jonathan Summers is sympathetic as Charlotte's father; as his drinking buddies, Philip Cokorinos and Tony Stevenson communicate the bumptious ordinariness of a world that has no place for people like Werther. Mr. Altinoglu shapes a beautifully detailed orchestral performance of this exquisite score, finding great tenderness and heart-stopping despair.

As he did in his Met "Carmen" of 2009, Mr. Eyre demonstrates how a strong theatrical concept can make an essentially representational production just as exciting and unexpected as more adventurous, over-the-top stagings. We know "Werther" is supposed to be a tragedy, but it can feel more like farce. Here, we were never in doubt that for these people the stakes were impossibly high.

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