Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; February 18, 2014— The Met’s new production of Massenet’s weepy Werther is its first in 42 years; the occasion, one must presume, is the availability of tenor Jonas Kaufmann. He is stepping into shoes worn by Franco Corelli, Placido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Neil Shicoff, and Roberto Alagna and he shines brightly and walks upright against such formidable memories.
Happily, there are no shocks from the production team. Updating the opera 100 years to Massenet’s time does it no harm. Precisely why director Richard Eyre opts to show us, during the opera’s prelude and behind a scrim, the death and funeral of Charlotte’s mother (one minute she’s singing Christmas carols, the next she’s in a coffin) is a stumper, but then again, it is Charlotte’s stupid promise to her mother that binds her to Albert. And some might object to Eyre’s depiction of Charlotte as glamorous or his allowing us to actually see Werther shoot himself (he first aims at his head but then opts for his chest–we get plenty of red splatter on the wall behind him). But Rob Howell’s sets–a set of five omnipresent, slightly skewed proscenium arches (or picture frames) with landscape and adorable humpbacked bridge for the first two acts; elegant, book-lined living room for the third, and a smaller, claustrophobic room that slides forward for the final scene are evocative, and Wendall Harrington’s handsome projections, depicting nature in different forms and the changing of the seasons are enhancing and move the storyline forward.
Musically, the first two acts seemed tamped down. Kaufmann’s singing is always interesting, but except for a handful of notes, the first act was sung so introspectively, so poetically, and so beautifully that parts of it were inaudible. There are moments when his diminuendos and pianissimos move towards affect. But when he sings out, the sound and feeling are visceral; his third and fourth acts were powerful, both vocally and emotionally, and the top notes blaze. He may indeed be the opera world’s most charismatic tenor, and his death scene–an amazingly long event–was desperately sad.
Sophie Koch, making her Met debut as Charlotte (stepping in for a pregnant Elina Garanca) presented a puzzling portrayal. The voice is brighter than most Charlottes; indeed, the soprano-like top is edgy. And while Charlotte, with her two back-to-back arias in the third act, can walk away with the show, Koch, though singing splendidly, was focused on the audience: there was little or no inner torment. We recall Frederica von Stade and Tatiana Troyanos in the role; Koch never touched the heart as they did.
David Bizic, another debutante, sang Albert (dressed in military uniform) with almost too much expression; nevertheless, he brought a fine sound to the part. And Lisette Oropesa was not the usual soubrette Sophie–directed to be more of an equal than “little sister” to Charlotte, she sang with great elegance and energy. Jonathan Summers’ Bailiff proved big-voiced but gentle.
Alain Altinoglu led the superb Met orchestra (and great children’s chorus) with energy and attention to color. The poetry was mostly left up to Kaufmann’s moments; elsewhere, it was business-as-usual. Maybe that’s poor Werther’s problem–he’s alone with nature and melancholy in an otherwise real world.