The Sorrows of an Audience Member at Werther

I can’t compare the opera Werther to the Goethe novel The Sorrows of Young Werther on which it is based, on account of not having read it.  However, given Goethe’s status in the annals of world literature, I can’t imagine it is a clunky and crude as Massenet’s presentation of the story.

Act 1 reminded me of all the reasons I disliked Manon.  The preposterous turns of drama, linked to music which sounds gorgeous but appears to go nowhere.  The end of Act 1 concludes with a frankly hilarious exchange, where the sweet nothings of our hero and heroine are interrupted by news of the arrival of the heroine’s betrothed, and the dialogue goes: “Ah, I forgot I promised to marry him.”  “Then you must do that, and I must die.”  Cue exit, Werther’s anguished cry of “Marry another!”, and down comes the curtain.

Werther, dragging a thundercloud (cartoon)

Enter Werther, stage right

The character of Werther is the tortured poet writ to preposterously large proportions.  He emerges into every scene dragging behind him an orchestral depiction of a thundercloud of gloom.  There is no opportunity to understand what makes him this way, we just have to accept that this is how we find him.  What on earth Charlotte sees in him I couldn’t fathom, and so the whole relationship seems bizarre.

Act 1 and Act 2 passed by, liberally sprinkled with a couple of “comedy” drunken French peasants,  and things started to get more interesting in Acts 3 and 4.  The scene with Charlotte rereading Werther’s letters, the appearance of Werther and the subsequent declarations of love and separation were much more dramatically engaging.  Freed from the need to deal with externalities, Massenet developed a more consistent dramatic style which made the interior angst and its expression much more powerful.  If Act 4’s death scene seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, it was still in a similar vein, and a marked improvement on the earlier acts.  I do so want to like Massenet for those lush orchestral tonalities, but on the basis of Manon and Werther (and, I seem to recall, a Hérodiade from Dorset Opera in 2006), it seems consistently let down by a rather crude approach to the drama.  Anyway, the orchestra delivered the goods when it came to lushness, and Pappano stormed the climaxes when required.

Benoît Jacquot’s production dressed the whole piece in elegant, naturalistic form: simple, broad stage pictures conjuring up the requisite atmosphere, except for the claustrophobic box that faded in from the darkness for the room of Werther’s suicide in Act 4.  Generally admirable, and gorgeouss to look at, all this naturalism did emphasise any dramatic absurdities of parts of the plot and libretto.

Sophie Koch harnessed a rich and expressive voice to her committed portrayal of Charlotte, in many ways the highlight of the performance – especially in that Act 3 scene.  Audun Iversen ciphered with effective vocal resonance and did what he could with what Massenet provided for him as the husband: is he benign, isn’t he? Is he Werther’s friend, isn’t he? Who cares?  Anyway, Eri Nakamura burst into each scene in the required perky ‘I’m the contrast with all this gloom’ manner, her bright soprano unfailingly attractive.

And finally, the comeback kid himself, Rolando Villazón:  if the voice is not as free and fulsome as once it was, it nevertheless retains a fulsomeness in the middle range, and can achieve the heights with confidence.  The sound is, as many have noted, smaller than it used to be.  I’ve never really been a Villazónista – a member of that ardent fan base that he commands – but was pleased and relieved that he seems to be back on some, albeit different, form.  He is undoubtedly a sincere artist, but I don’t find his dramatic style particularly to my taste, sacrificing introspection for an all-out, arm-waving, big picture, ardent expressiveness.  Horses for courses, I guess: just glad it was Massenet and not a rerun of that Don Carlos

Why all this Massenet, I ask myself?  The Royal Opera seems to be on a bit of a Massenet binge, what with Manon back in July 2010, this Werther, and Cendrillon scheduled for July of this year.  Though there seems little fanfare, it would appear we are gearing up for a centenary of Massenet’s death on 13 August 1912, although the ROH seem to have peaked a little early, with no Massenet scheduled for 2011/12 season.  Autumn 2012, perhaps?  Before I say, almost certainly prematurely, ‘let’s hope not’, I’ll give Cendrillon it’s head and we’ll see what comes of it…

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