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.