Massenet’s Werther has always been a slow burn opera for me: it’s modest, quiet, it starts slowly. But at some point I notice that it’s got me, and it doesn’t let go. This Met production takes far longer to exert its pull than it should, but it more or less gets there anyway.
Massenet, Werther. Metropolitan Opera, 2/28/2014. New production directed by Richard Eyre, conducted by Alain Altinoglu with Sophie Koch (Charlotte), Jonas Kaufmann (Werther), Lisette Oropesa (Sophie), David Bizic (Albert), assorted drinking buddies and children.
Richard Eyre’s production is inexplicably set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, meaning around the time of the opera’s composition. For the most part it’s a precious, prim, slightly kitschy piece of work. In the first act, Rob Howell’s set mixes the realistic (trees, outdoor furniture) with the slightly distancing (a crooked, cantilevered proscenium frame, and visible stage boards). But the effect is storybook, not Verfremdung. There’s some good Personenregie in the interactions between the characters, and when that takes over it begins to feel like a real story. When Werther crashes into Charlotte’s library in Act 3, there’s a melodramatic lighting cue and there’s a feeling like the story has finally started—from that point there’s some decent angst. But too often Eyre seems more interesting in gilding the lily, ending up with romance rather than Romanticism.
|Set for Act II of L’elisir d’amore, I mean, Act II of Werther|
In the first act, granted, it’s partly Massenet’s fault—the opera is cluttered with scene-setting, such as lots of singing children and some unnecessarily long-winded drinking buddies. But the production doesn’t stop there. For example, consider the Clair de lune, an interlude during which Charlotte and Werther go to a ball (not pictured) and walk home.* It’s interesting that Massenet didn’t include a scene that actually takes place at the ball (which is in the book), but Eyre provides us with one set to this music: a dreamy not-quite-waltz populated by a good number of dancers, including Charlotte and Werther themselves. It’s not awful, but it enforces a functional, prosaic, public role on music which unstaged, or focused only on our protagonists’ stroll home, is more impressionistic and intimate. (Oh, and there are nature scene video projections throughout, whose presence seemed to mark the production as vaguely current but contributed nothing.)
|Clair de lune|
Charlotte and Albert evidently have reached the upper and borderline urbane class, particularly evident in their opulent library in Act 3 (which features an embarrassment of fainting couches–I recalled Noises Off, “all these doors!”). They also have a harpsichord, which is…. in period quite strange, I didn’t imagine Charlotte and Albert as the founders of the modern historically informed performance movement. But this production had to make a choice because Werther says, “there’s the harpsichord.” They went for the literal route and put a harpsichord onstage, even though a piano would have made way more sense in this otherwise-faithful rendering of period. Choices!** This opulence only exacerbates one of the opera’s major weaknesses: its plot could be described as First World Problems, and one might wish to tell these very comfortable people to get over themselves.
And somehow among this scenery, Werther doesn’t make much of an impression at all, particularly when his sole distinguishing features are a very large coat and a disinclination to stand downstage center. I mean, you have to believe that he is at least somewhat weird in seeing this ordinary town and ordinary people as magical, right? Here the superficial beauty of the setting renders his enchantment banal and vaguely commodified. What’s more, the choice of time period makes this worse. If it’s the fin de siècle, suffering for love was a basic rite of passage for any self-respecting young man, and marital custom was in what one might call an It Gets Better stage. What makes him so special? (Really, why this setting? Downton Abbey is not a correct answer.)
You need a really vivid performance in the title role (and Charlotte) to overcome these problems, which are hardly unique to this particular production. I’ve seen Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch together in this opera before, in Vienna, so I basically knew what to expect of them (i.e. a lot, they’re really good). I thought they were both somewhat more effective in Andrei Serban’s 1950’s-themed Staatsoper production, which I like more, but they and the excellent supporting cast do a good amount to redeem this Met production’s preciousness, if not totally negate it. And the Met effort is indisputably superior musically, particularly thanks to Alain Altinoglu’s tasteful, elegant conducting. A few of his tempo choices defied my sense of dramatic logic (in both directions), but the overall tone—graceful and clear without being too sweet—was excellent.
Kaufmann doesn’t really come alive until the end of Act 2, at which point the opera seems to shift in a higher gear itself. Before that he basically hung around extreme stage right and kept a lid on his large and gnarly baritonal voice. Though I could always hear him, I wondered why he wasn’t making a bigger impression (in Wien he arguably overacted Werther as weird). But when Werther decides the situation is serious, Kaufmann did too, and the rest of the evening from “Lorsque l’enfant” on was very exciting singing. He went back to the quiet stuff for the death act, which is a ridiculously drawn out scene with at least three Not Dead Yet moments but his gradual downward trajectory was vocally kind of beautiful, so I was inclined not to begrudge him this lengthy period of expiration.
Koch, in contrast, was a fidgety and if anything overly demonstrative Charlotte. From the start she is obviously interested in Werther and only minimally charmed by Albert. It’s hard to believe Koch is only now making her Met debut; she can fill the theater like an expert, and particularly by the end of “Laisse couler mes larmes” she was sounding like our next Fricka (a role I heard her sing in Munich quite well). She’s got a lachrymose, distinctive tone that is quite big for Charlotte, though sometimes it has a bit of a hollow quality. I did not believe for a second, however, that her Charlotte was about to follow in Werther’s footsteps, as the ending of the staging suggested. What about les enfants?
The supporting roles were excellent: David Bizic made a stellar debut as Albert, with a clean and focused baritone, and Met regular Lisette Oropesa’s sparking soprano with its quick vibrato was perfect as a Sophie who, while cheery, still has some backbone.
Worth seeing, but less so if you’ve seen Kaufmann and Koch in this before. The HD broadcast is on March 15. You can watch some short videos on the Met’s website, which are unfortunately not embeddable.
*Related, because it’s around this section: I went to this performance with some undergraduates from my department (thanks for the nice seats, Department!). After the first half, they all had one question: who the hell is Klopstock? They were asking, of course, about two minor characters, Brühlmann and Kätchen, who appear in each other’s arms and utter only three words over a progression that is taking its sweet time to get back to its home base of C major:
She: Divin Klopstock!
It’s a weird, weird moment. I explained who Klopstock was (eighteenth-century poet who sort of prefigured Romanticism and influence Goethe), but that doesn’t really explain it, does it? Brühlmann and Käthchen seem like an Easter egg, or visitors from another opera, one where Werther’s overabsorption in reading isn’t basically eliminated, Act 3 aria excepted. Or one where the tone is, perhaps, a bit more ironic. Eyre incorporates these two into the dramatic texture, bringing on the other couples on their way to the ball alongside them. But it doesn’t quite normalize it. (Also, trust a bunch of undergraduates to focus right in on this kind of
peripheral but potentially revealing detail.)
**I was chatting with a harpsichordist friend over the weekend and whined about this point. She pointed out that in the nineteenth century many harpsichord cases were given internal organ transplants and made into pianos. So it’s POSSIBLE. But not very likely.
Some more photos (all copyright Ken Howard/Met):
|Insel Verlag is always a quality choice|