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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Opera Review: Poetry in Motion

The Met unveils a new Richard Eyre Werther. (Hey, that rhymes!)
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Talk to the hand: Charlotte (Sophie Koch) rejects Werther (Jonas Kaufmann) with a gesture
as the Met opens Richard Eyre's new production of the Massenet opera.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera unveiled the sixth and final new production of the 2013-14 season on Tuesday night: a new staging of Jules Massenet's Werther. However, the real reasons for celebration were the roof-raising performances of Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, a complex, towering performance that might finally get New York audiences to appreciate Massenet. This was the Met's first new production of the opera in 40 years, and its first performance of Werther since a 2004 revival starring Roberto Alagna. (Thanks to one of our readers for pointing out a previous error.)

Werther is the most "Romantic" of Massenet's operas: the story of an ardent young poet (Mr. Kaufmann, in the title role) and his obsession with the very bourgeois and very married Charlotte (Sophie Koch, in her house debut.) This obsession ultimately leads to suicide and a very long death scene as he expires in Charlotte's arms. Massenet was inspired to set Werther after seeing Wagner's Parsifal and the score uses leitmotiv to indicate character development.  Massenet assigns themes to Werther, 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.

The role of Werther is like a decathlon, requiring the tenor to demonstrate a wide variety of skills at a very high level for a discerning public. Mr. Kaufmann stunned the audience with the the majestic Invocation to Nature in Act I, following with the long, spiraling duet with Charlotte that sparks his romantic obsession. The German tenor used his full register in this evening, slicing through the thick, dark orchestration with sweet, pliant tone and projecting gorgeous ribbons of sound into the yawning gulf of the Met's huge auditorium.

However, the problem with the first half of the evening rested with Ms. Koch. A replacement for Elīna Garanča, this French mezzo did her best to appear aloof but simply came off as a bland, colorless object of Werther's fantasies. (In the role of Sophie, soprano Lisette Oropesa was far more attractive and interesting, though it should be pointed out that her character is only 15!) There were few sparks from the leading lady in the first act, although the "Claire de lune" was sung prettily. In Act II, the great moment when she sends Werther into exile (presumably to get over his feelings and find some other girl (any other girl!) came off as merely petulant.

In Act III, Charlotte's rejection becomes final, sending Werther down the long lonely road to suicide. Here, Mr. Kaufmann played the hero as awkward and out of control, literally tripping over the furniture in his effort to show Charlotte his wild passion for her. All this physicality did not affect the power of his performance, as he rose into the climactic, tortured phrases hitting potent high notes that stirred the audience. In the final death scene, the singer summoned soft chest tones, declaiming the text with pin-point control and making the audience hang on his every word.

The third act showed considerable improvement from the beleaguered Ms. Koch. In the long Letter Scene, she reflected on her own feelings for Werther, unveiling the true depths of her character and confessing the misery of her married state. This previously bland portrayal finally unfolded, as she dug deep into the vocal line and did her best to save the first half of the performance. The final duet, sung in Werther's crummy apartment with his blood staining one wall, is the only time the characters sing together. Here, the effect was intimate and devastating in its power. However, Mr. Eyre's "creative" ending, which has Charlotte picking up the second pistol and pointing at herself as the curtain falls is unnecessary and leaves a sour taste as the curtain falls.

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. The decor, by Rob Howell is pure catalogue, possibly on loan from the West Elm store a few blocks south of Lincoln Center. 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. These yield to the locale of the last act: the poet's dinky bed-sit where, it is suggested, real art could be created if the character hadn't discovered Romantic love.

The two leads were ably supported. In his Met debut, Serbian bass David Bižic went from a stolid burgher to an angry, spurned husband with rich, dark tones. He was positively chilling in the scene where he orders a sobbing Charlotte to have his pistols brought to Werther, becoming the agent of his young rival's death. Expect bigger and better things from this fine voice in the future. Tony Stephenson and Philip Cokorinos provided commentary and brief comic relief as Hans and Johann, two bystanders who talk about drinking a lot. Less impressive was the gruff British baritone Jonathan Summers as the Bailiff, father to the vast brood of Charlotte's family

Alain Altinoglu led the always-splendid Met Orchestra in a detail-oriented performance that captured the Wagnerian development of Massenet's musical ideas. Mr. Altinoglu is a canny conductor, drawing sweep and power from his players but always supporting the singers, guiding the way through Massenet's dense forestry of woodwinds and brass. Anthony Piccolo's direction of members of the children's chorus added charm and ironic holiday cheer to the beginning and end of the opera.

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