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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Werther

The Met brings back its handsome new Werther without its star, Jonas Kaufmann.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A poet in a tiny apartment: Jonas Kaufmann in the final scene from Werther.
Photo © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
Vittorio Grigolo has big shoes to fill as the Met revives its Richard Eyre staging of Werther, the tale of a lovestruck poet too sensitive to survive the last act.

What is Werther?
Werther (pronounced "Ver-TAIR" with a slight lisp on the t, I have trouble with it too) is an old-fashioned love story that ends in tragedy. It remains one of Massenet's most enduring popular operas, a tour-de-force for a tenor with acting ability and a sweet, dulcet tone. The story is an adaptation of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, a loose autobiographical novel by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

What's Werther about?

Werther is the most "Romantic" of Massenet's operas: the story of an ardent young poet and his obsession with the very bourgeois and very married Charlotte. This obsession ultimately leads to suicide and a very long death scene as he expires in Charlotte's arms.

What's the music like?
Massenet was inspired to set Werther after seeing Wagner's Parsifal. The score uses leitmotiv to indicate character development.  Massenet assigns themes to Werther himself, to Charlotte, and to nebulous concepts like the "love of nature" and Werther's suicide, symbolized as a "crime against nature" by playing that particular thematic fragment backward.

Who's in it?
Vittorio Grigolo sings the title role opposite Isabel Leonard, who takes on a major leading role as Charlotte. Anna Christy is Sophie, and David Bizic returns as Albert, a role he created when this production premiered. Edward Gardner conducts.

How's the production?
Mr. Eyre's "postcard from Wetzlar" production (seen from seat I-2 in the Family Circle Balance where some upstage details are simply not visible) sets the first two acts in a twisted, spiraling set of picture frames. Digital projections and backdrops convey the majesty of nature and the German countryside. Charlotte's quarters are an enormous, largely inaccessible library, with the height of the upper shelves suggesting that these walls of books are merely for bourgeois display.

Why should I see it?
The music is gorgeous and the production is inoffensive, despite decor that looks like it came from a nearby Pottery Barn. See it if you are a fan of French opera or of Mr. Grigolo.

When does it open?
Werther opens Feb. 16, 2017.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Which recording should I get?
Royal Opera House of Covent Garden cond. Antonio Pappano (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012)
Werther: Rolando Villazón
Charlotte: Sophie Koch
Massenet's opera has a long history on disc, with the part attracting a wide range of tenors from Alfredo Kraus (who made it a signature part) to José Carreras and Plácido Domingo. This recording from Covent Garden features the the return of tenor Rolando Villazón to the title role under the skilled leadership of conductor Antonio Pappano. It gets the nod simply because it features mezzo Sophie Koch, who takes a starring role in this new Met production.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.