Werther or not

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:
He: Klopstock!
She: Divin Klopstock!
See here:

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


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  1. Have you seen the dvd with Koch and Kaufmann? One of the best dvds on the market. That being said I can't help but wish Garanca was performing. This role is one the rare roles that suits her dramatically. Any thoughts.

  2. Hi Micaela I've now seen two performances, one with Kaufmann and one with his last-minute replacement Jean-Francois Borras. Both were great in different ways. Borras's voice is much more lyrical, without the stentorian power on top, but smoother, sweeter timbre. However it wasn't until Borras stepped into the production that I realized how twee it was. It was designed seemingly for Kaufmann's physique and persona. Borras, a bigger guy and more straightforward actor, seemed so awkward on the tiny bench, the red velvet divan, the tinier bed where he has to die. I have no idea why Richard Eyre decided to make this already prim opera even primmer with these choices.

    Great review.

  3. I actually saw the Serban production in Vienna with Garanca as well (in around 2006 or so, which was before she was internationally famous and well before I saw it with Kaufmann and Koch). Garanca had to deal with Marcelo Alvarez as Werther, who was not good at all, but she was great. Much chillier than Koch, but she softened a bit in the Letter Scene, and the 1950s housewife shtick of that production suited her very well (she originated it). I like Koch too, but I would have liked to see Garanca sing it at the Met as well.

    I've seen that Paris production, but not for a while. As I remember, it was terrifically intense and very well sung and filmed almost entirely in closeup, which distracted from the fact that the production was otherwise a bit of a snooze?

  4. You know, once I understood about Klopstock, I always envision a story set in the 1960s, in which a couple would appear, one would say "Dylan…" and the other would say "wow…" and that would pretty much parallel the Klopstock comments. I'm in two minds about the production…can't they be sued for stealing the Paris production's act IV set? Loved the music and acting though–I was so involved I never looked at the titles after the interval.

  5. Ha, I thought that about the Act IV set too. The big looming tree in Acts I and II is strongly reminiscent of the Serban production as well.

    When I direct Werther the Klopstock lovers are going to be stoners. Wooooow. (Alternately, the entire story is inside their heads.)

  6. The Paris production is a bit of a bore but the director clearly knows how to direct singers so I think that dvd is truly amazing.

  7. The filming of the Paris production final scene is brilliant and quite *cough* sexy. Which makes all the backstage distractions they added to the rest of the opera even worse. Verfremdung?

  8. Hi Micaela,
    "Klopstock" is sort of a pars pro toto quote of his ode "Frühlingsfeier". This would have been quite clear to Goethes contemporaries, but it is sort of weird now.

  9. OK, I did what I should have done all along and looked up KLOPSTOCK in Stephen Huebner's French Opera at the Fin de Siecle and of course he has something informative to say about it. (My excuse for this taking me this long is that my diss is due in two weeks.) He reads it as parodic, which was my suspicion as well. He says, and I quote:

    "Massenet's score contains several parodic glimpses over the Rhine. He hijacks one particularly important moment in the rapprochement of Lotte and Werther in the novel for comédic ends. As told by Goethe, a storm breaks out during the ball, and in its aftermath Lotte and Werther walk to a window and gaze over the glistening countryside. With tears in her eyes she lays her hand on his and utters ‘Klopstock’. Werther understands this as a reference to an ode to spring by that poet. Tears well up within him as well. A single name has the evocative power to draw their souls together. Massenet turns the episode around to caricature the putative sentimentality of the German. In Werther it is not Charlotte and Werther who utter ‘Klopstock’, but the minor characters Brühlmann and Kätchen in Act I. In fact, this is the only music for them in the entire opera, and Massenet parodies the pregnancy of the name by harmonizing the simple alternation of two pitches D and F in many different ways (Ex. 6.2). The harmonization is overdone, subtle musician's humour. Le Bailli makes clear that Brühlmann and Kätchen are not to be taken seriously with his subsequent ironic observation ‘Bavards! / Vous direz le reste à la fête… Un aussi long discours vous mettrait en retard’ (Chatterboxes! You will continue at the party—such drawn‐out talk would make you late)." (pp. 119-120)

  10. Excellent review, chock-a-block with amusing (and acute) observations, although I'm not sure I agree with the "First World problems" take. But then I adore Werther … the character, the novel, and above all the opera, rather like a teenage crush that's never abated. But still, point well taken …"Werther loves Charlotte, but she’s already engaged. Woe is he!" (succinct summary from The Telegraph's list of "100 novels everyone should read"). So dispiriting that Eyre is next set to muck up The Marriage of Figaro at the Met. As the great Gleason put it, "How twee it is!'

  11. Saw this yesterday at the movies. Not the strongest opera but interludes of beautiful music. Koch and Kaufmann lift this above sentimentality although their voices, especially his (I confess I'd listen to him sing the proverbial phone book) sometimes seemed larger than the music. The first two acts are so much set up–the performers, especially Sophy, and the sets were charming, but I wanted them to get on with the story. The theatre I was in lost voice transmission during most of the final scene , which was AWFUL, but we were all given free tickets to return for any movie. I missed the chorus. Loved act 3, Koch's performance, Pourquoi; Albert forcing his wife to deliver the pistols. This Werther and Charlotte are older which adds to the poignancy, as if they had loved each other for years. Just for fun–during curtain calls instead of being showered with flowers, torn pieces of papers–the letters and poems–flutter down. And does anyone know who the sketches in Werther's room are? There are a man and a woman to the right of the desk, in poses and dress similar to Hugo and Empress Eugenie, but not. What did other movie goers think? Kitty