Composer: Jules Massenet
Conductor: Alain Altinoglu
Producer/Director: Richard Eyre
Werther: Jonas Kaufmann
Charlotte: Sophie Koch
Sophie: Lisette Oropesa
Albert: David Bizic
I have never been a big fan of Massenet no matter how hard I've tried. I enjoyed Thaïs with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampton, but that was more for the mesmerizing singers than the actual opera, and I've always found Manon to be a vapid floozy definitely not worthy of all the attention she gets (Although I must admit that the image of Anna Netrebko singing a beautifully heart-felt "La petite table" a couple of years ago at The Met has been solidly anchored in my memory ever since). As for the rest of his fairly large œuvre, there actually may be a reason why it did not really survive the test of time. Just saying.
So I had never been particularly interested in his Werther either. However, Goethe's popular novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, with its simple and dramatic story, certainly seemed ready-made for an opera treatment. Then It Tenor of the moment Jonas Kaufmann and highly regarded mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch got signed by The Met as the ill-fated couple, instantaneously increasing the production's hotness level. And finally, I should not be put down anything I haven't gotten a chance to experience in person anyway.
So I decided to give it a try last night, and so did many, many others. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the large contingent holding standing-room tickets as they were gamely climbing to the top of the Family Circle section with no hope whatsoever of being able to grab an empty seat during intermission. The performance was "only" three hours, but even such a reasonable duration can feel like a long time when one has to content oneself with standing room and limited view.
And all that, let's face it, for most people was probably not endured to experience Massenet's opera live or to check out Sophie Koch, who has been positively buzzed about, but is still relatively unknown on this side of the pond, but for über-popular Jonas Kaufmann. At least, he did not disappoint. From his first appearance as the quintessential Romantic poet, as impossibly handsome as ever with tussled dark hair and a long black coat, he eerily looked the part. And man, can he brood.
But the real treat was to hear him use his stentorian power to forcefully convey his uncontrollable feelings toward the woman he loves and cannot have. Even his warmer and softer notes had a moving honesty and desperation to them, all the way to his pianissimo dying words. Needless to say, his eagerly awaited, impeccably soaring "Pourquoi me réveiller" was rewarded by a frenzied ovation almost as long as the aria itself. Tired of moping around, the frustrated young man was getting really angry, and the moment was divine.
He was particularly well-matched with his French stage partner Sophie Koch, their immediate chemistry and obviously high comfort level in all likelihood stemming from their having performed these very same roles in Europe before. In her long overdue Met debut as Charlotte, the sensitive mezzo-soprano confidently displayed a constantly strong, endlessly versatile voice, from youthful freshness to unbreakable resolve to aching vulnerability. While I found the touching last scene overly long, I was absolutely floored by Act III, which started with the other famous letter scene of the opera repertoire, moved on to Werther making his dashing entrance, and peaked during their highly emotional confrontation.
The other members of the cast fared just as well, with among them lovely soprano Lisette Oropesa, a Met regular who brought a breath of fresh air every time Sophie walked in, although Charlotte's younger sister may also have been more mature than she let out, and affable baritone David Bizic, who capably embodied a good-hearted but hapless Albert in his Met debut.
The first thing that struck me even before the performance started was that the greeting "Joyeux Noel" that appeared on the Christmas card on the stage was misspelled, as "Noel" should have been "Noël". Apart from that unfortunate and easily avoidable faux pas, the sets were in general conventionally attractive, from the picturesque garden to the book-filled study, as were the costumes. Computer-generated imagery also helped change the atmosphere, the scenes and the seasons without ever being intrusive or out-of-place. And if it all seemed a bit precious, especially with Werther and Charlotte dropping to the floor at each dramatic plot twist, it is after all a Romantic tragedy.
The added opening scene, during which we saw Charlotte's mother collapse and eventually being mourned as the overture was playing, was unnecessary, but certainly not a disaster. The other controversial scene was Werther's killing himself, which included brooding, hesitancy, more brooding, and finally a fatal gunshot that splattered bright red blood on the white back wall. This unapologetic Tarantino moment may have felt too graphic for such a nuanced opera, but it also vividly emphasized the deep desperation of his act. It was not pretty, but then again, neither is suicide by gunshot.
Massenet wrote some nice melodies for the orchestra, but he obviously reserved his best compositional efforts for the singers. Having this consummate cast dive into the score with such committed passion was all benefit for the audience, who reveled in their terrific singing to the very end. On the podium, conductor Alain Altinoglu made sure to tread lightly while still keeping a tight grip on the overall musical performance. And it worked.