Review: The Met's New Werther Succeeds in Haunting Ways

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 - 01:33 PM

Jonas Kaufmann as the title character and Sophie Koch as Charlotte in Massenet's "Werther." (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Were it written today, Werther would undoubtedly be a stalker opera instead of a tender love story of a poet who would rather die than be without the woman he loves. Less-than-wonderful performances of Massenet's opera can suggest brazen emotional blackmail and date-rape.

Yet no such modern anachronism came to mind during the Metropolitan Opera's opening of Werther on Tuesday, in a new Richard Eyre production that's an across-the-board success, the title role being a showcase for Jonas Kaufmann's latest triumph, perhaps his greatest yet.

Sturdier than most Massenet operas, Werther still needs all the atmosphere it can get with its somewhat precious story that originated with a young Goethe in the late 18th century and was refracted for middle-class opera audiences in the late 19th century.

Though more representational than symbolic, the production looked solidly Biedermeier but stood on the verge of abstraction with a storybook sensibility aided by picturesque computer-generated imagery allowing changes of perspective in outdoor scenes, not to mention birds flying hither and thither plus digital snow (saving the stage hands from shoveling between scenes).

The Rob Howell set design intriguingly had a series of frames with the proscenium that became woozily diagonal in the nature scenes where Werther is most at home and where his love for Charlotte (who has been promised to another) blooms. The frames became upright and perpendicular for indoor scenes where the rules of the rigid society come prominently into play.

Charlotte's home was full of towering bookshelves, suggesting the layers of social expectations that forced her into a loveless marriage. Kaufmann's entrance there was the sort that star tenors dream about: Towering, center-stage doors opened dramatically as he makes his life-and-death play for Charlotte's affections.

The title role showed Kaufmann moving away from stentorian Wagner singing. His best moments were daringly soft, often phrased with a concentration of meaning that one tends not to hear outside of Lieder recitals. In fact, Kaufmann's forthcoming Sony Classical recording of Schubert's Winterrese is indeed the work of a proper Lieder singer. Mostly, such phrases were reserved for turning points in the character's psychology, allowing Kaufmann to chart Werther's stage-by-stage degeneration into suicide from the inside out. Arias that most tenors sing with full-tilt desperation were carefully shaded. As Werther died, the color leeched out of his voice in ways rarely been heard since Maria Callas' La Boheme recording. How often do tenors keep getting better amid the glare of extreme fame?

In her Met debut, the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch (Charlotte) matched Kaufmann as much as her less-interesting role allowed. Though she has seemed headed toward Wagner singing in recent years, she emerged here with a perfectly focused, diction-based voice. As Charlotte confessed her passion to the dying Werther, Koch vividly delivered her words of love with colors that hadn't been heard elsewhere in the evening, as her character reveals what she previously kept under very deep wraps. One could wish for more physical formality in her characterization, but that's a minor problem. Amid such heavyweight theatricality, Lisette Oropesa (Sophie) couldn't help being overshadowed.

Not to be overlooked, though, was conductor Alain Altinoglu. With their souffle-like delicacy, Massenet operas can either reveal their commonplace ingredients or rise like magic according to who is in the pit, and Altinoglu has that special touch I've only previously heard from Georges Pretre. Any temptation to diagnose (rather than empathize) with these characters was vanquished by Altinoghu's conviction. So haunting is this Werther that I fear it may indeed be a stalker opera. In the hours since the final curtain, I keep sensing that it's hovering over my shoulder.

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Comments [10]

Enid McKitrick from Maryland

It is not Die Leider des Jungen Werthers - it is Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers.

Mar. 16 2014 06:13 AM
Joanne from Mesa, Arizona

I saw the HD presentation of this opera today in Mesa, AZ and was enthralled by both Jonas Kaufman's and Sophie Koch's performances as well as the overall production. Unfortunately, the sound went out during the last dying scene due to a failure in the satellite transmission (we were told). What a disappointment for all of us!
Yet, I guess we had seen enough to feel that we had experienced a wonderful performance.

Mar. 15 2014 07:08 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Today's [Saturday March 15, 2014] cast with Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and Sophie Koch as Charlotte is ideal. Kaufmann is GREAT AS A SINGER AND ACTOR and looks right for the romantic roles in opera. Koch in her own right is right up there. Werther s an opera that proffers so very much to both actors and singers that it deserves wider performance scheduling. I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor . I will sing the four song cycles that are most often performed in their orchestral garb:the complete Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," the complete Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," the tenor's music in Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and Waldemar's music in Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC on Saturday March 22nd at 6 PM in the Gold Room on the second floor. I have sung four three-hour-long solo concerts, the last two ALL-WAGNER concerts, in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall including programming the Wagner and the first named Mahler song cycle. One may hear my singing LIVE from the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium of CARNEGIE HALL, from my four three-hour-long solo concerts by downloading, FREE, 37 out of the nearly 100 selections that I have sung there by going to RECORDED SELECTIONS on my websites www.WagnerOpera.com, www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com Roles represented from live performances are Otello, Siegfried, Goetterdaemmerung Siegfried, Florestan, Tristan, Parsifal, Siegmund, Walther von Stolzing, Rienzi, Lohengrin,Orfeo, Federico and, in oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus.

Mar. 15 2014 03:35 PM
Min Gee from Spring Valley, NY

I was privileged to attend the opening night performance of the new production of Werther at the Met.
It was an absolutely thrilling experience.
Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch were divine to listen to as well as compelling to watch the intensity of their performance.
I would also like to see the HD presentation, to be able to relive this experience and be able to view it from a closer perspective and study their facial expressions to enhance the enjoyment of this performance.
Bravi!

Feb. 21 2014 02:22 AM
Gloria Schuster from Maspeth, NY

Yes, it is "Lieder" - which is the German word for song.

However, the title of the book is Die Leider des Jungen Werther (sorry unable to underscore), which translates to: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

An easy transpositional error to make in this case.

Feb. 20 2014 10:35 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I am waiting with baited breath for him to sing Pourquoi me re'veiller, for me, the most beautiful tenor aria.

Feb. 20 2014 10:03 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I join resoundingly in saying "Amen" to this critique. The opening night broadcast revealed the various colors Jonas Kaufmann has at his disposal. His "Pourquoi me re'veiller" was masterfully sung and heartily applauded. Sophie Koch sang Gluck's "Alceste" last year at the Paris Opera; her versatility is praiseworthy. David Biz^ic was a sonorous and believable Albert, he of the soft-spokeness and always understanding bent. Lissette Oropesa's Sophie was overshadowed, though her singing was enchanting, only because the role is indeed small. She was outstanding as Lissette in Puccini's "La Rondine" and in "The Enchanted Island." The Bailiff's children were on pitch for their Christmas carol. Maestro Altinoglu did indeed bring out the colors and atmosphere of this hauntingly beautiful score. The alto saxophone that Massenet calls for --- also employed in "He'rodiade" --- underscores the sad nostalgia of Charlotte's "Letter Scene" as well as Werther's Death Scene. The audience applauded and cheered uproariously at the end of the opera. This is a triumph that should be seen to be fully appreciated and/or failing that, listened to when it's scheduled for the matine'e broadcast on March 15th.

Feb. 20 2014 06:30 AM
Paul Pelkonen from Brooklyn, NY

I have heard Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal, Siegmund and Lohengrin. He has a fine voice that stays liquid even when placed under pressure, and I would not describe any of those performances as "stentorian."

Feb. 20 2014 12:12 AM
Reid Condit from San Francisco

Yes, but in the preceding sentence our critic got "lieder" right, although he omitted the capitalization there. What was it Emerson said about consistency and small minds? Oh, well, all is forgiven a critic when out of nowhere and amid so many worthy sopranos who have sung and recorded Mimi goes out of his way to praise Callas in a role not usually associated with her. So, he must be right about Kaufmann, too -- probably the greatest tenor in the world right now. I know: Jonas would say, as he did to Renata Scotto, "You mustn't say that."

Feb. 19 2014 10:36 PM
Sylvia Kahan

I would expect a critic for a major classical music station to know how to spell a word central to the vocal repertoire. And I would expect WQXR to check what it posts online for errors.

" a proper Leider singer."

It's Lieder, not Leider.

Dr. Sylvia Kahan, Professor of Music
City University of New York

Feb. 19 2014 09:08 PM

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