Wonderful Singing Makes The Royal Opera’s Revival of Werther Worthwhile
Massenet, Werther: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of The Royal Opera / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 19.6.2016. (JPr)
Werther: Vittorio Grigòlo
Charlotte: Joyce DiDonato
Albert: David Bizic
Sophie: Heather Engebretson
The Bailli: Jonathan Summers
Johann: Yuriy Yurchuk
Schmidt: François Piolino
Brühlmann: Rick Zwart
Käthchen: Emily Edmonds
Director: Benoît Jacquot
Revival Director: Andrew Sinclair
Set and lighting designer: Charles Edwards
Costume designer: Christian Gasc
Werther is a strange piece, the first two acts overstay their welcome because it is not difficult to establish that the eponymous poet is in love with Charlotte, a woman he cannot have and we really need to get more swiftly to the dénouement where he virtually blackmails her into loving him because he suggests he will kill himself if not. In 2016 Charlotte would have packed her bags, left her boorish husband, Albert, and ‘shacked up’ with Werther and lived happily ever after … at least for a while. However, in the nineteenth century that option was not the norm for French couples in this situation that Massenet’s opera was playing to. It had been adapted from Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther and is the tale of a somewhat feckless young courtier in 1780s Germany who seems to suffer from bouts of melancholia. He is something of a poet and wants life to be on his own terms. Impetuously, he falls in love with the stoic young Charlotte, the eldest daughter of a widowed Mayor who is in charge of a large estate on the outskirts of Frankfurt. He has been left alone raising his children with the help of Charlotte and her younger sister, Sophie. All the rest you need to know is that Charlotte made her dying mother a promise to marry Albert and there is no happy ending. Quite the contrary, Werther’s death scene is one of the most protracted in all opera and it did not exactly fly by in this performance but the composer was probably more to blame for this than the artists.
So that is the rather straightforward and intimate plot, everything else is in the music and should not require further explanation or illustration. Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production – only now getting a second revival after a dozen years – takes this ‘intimate’ story and gives it the full Hollywood IMAX treatment which tends to smother the drama of the drama lyrique. Throughout Acts I and II there is a blue cyclorama and a steeply raked floor, where they differ is at first there is a high wall with an elaborate barn door and later there is a low wall interrupted by some steps. Act III takes place indoors in what looks like the sparsely furnished entrance hall of Downton Abbey with only those props mentioned in the libretto, which of course includes a harpsichord. Act IV is the most interesting as a garret familiar from La bohème cinematically emerges from the distance. Snow is falling and windows are frosted and that is about it for Charles Edwards’s scenery, apart perhaps for a few dead leaves in Act II. Strangely both Charlotte and her sister don’t seem to change their dress during the opera, perhaps Christian Gasc was never given much of the original budget for his costumes.
Werther had a long gestation and may have been started as early as 1880 which was before Massenet began work on Manon. However, in his memoirs – seemingly as unreliable as most composer’s written recollections – he claimed inspiration came in 1886 during a visit to Bayreuth to see Wagner’s Parsifal. He wrote the score for Werther between 1885 and 1887 but the première wasn’t until 1892, when the Vienna Hofoper asked for another Massenet work after the success of Manon. It has been a staple of the international repertory since 1903 but has never had the success that Manon has achieved. Indeed, after a disastrous reception in 1894 Werther was not seen again at Covent Garden until 1977. Supposedly his encounters with Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth and elsewhere influenced Massenet to compose this – his only ‘music drama’ – and eschew a ‘number opera’ for something more unified with apparently some leitmotifs.
In my opinion the music reminded me more of Mascagni. Cavalleria rusticana and other verismo operas than Wagner! This was especially due to the ‘blood and thunder’ sounds emanating from the pit under Antonio Pappano. He seems to have an affection for this opera having conducted it in 2004, when first revived in 2011 and now. Conducting with verve and raw emotional power this was some of the best work I have heard from him and his Royal Opera House Orchestra since he became their music director in 2002. Pappano had a clear awareness of how to sustain the score’s fragile atmosphere whilst not neglecting its passionate outbursts in any way.
Pappano notwithstanding, it would be possible to reject this rather bland production of Werther outright if it was not for the singing which is mostly wonderful. Vittorio Grigòlo seems born to sing the title role and this is his first staged production. He seems to have a good grasp of the French style and others are better suited to comment on his diction but it sounded good to me. Reviews in previous years suggest the old-fashioned emoting is part of this production but Grigòlo did seem to go OTT at times but he held my attention even if his character seems to spend most of the opera wallowing in self-pity before mentally disintegrating and becoming suicidal. Unlike Jonas Kaufmann’s internalised assumption (review) Grigòlo embraces his emotional turmoil. His Act III rhapsody ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ was heartachingly poignant and his death scene would have been even more affecting had his relationship with Charlotte not been suffocated by the huge three-dimensional sets.
Charlotte may be a devoted ‘mother’ to her little brothers and sisters, but there was nothing maternal about the singing of Joyce DiDonato which was often quite youthful sounding, despite her mezzo-soprano range. Ms DiDonato is an incomparable artist in most of what she does but I must admit it is clear she hasn’t quite conquered this role in what was her own stage debut as Charlotte. She looks the part with her long blond tresses and acts well as someone conflicted and bound by social conventions. When singing with her middle register her voice was as gorgeous as always but her tone thinned considerably on the highest notes and made for uncomfortable listening on occasions. I am sure this will improve as the performances continue and none of this seemed to matter to her many admirers in the audience.
Joyce DiDonato’s compatriot, Heather Engebretson, was a tomboyish Sophie, also clearly infatuated with Werther. She sang with fresh, sunny tone and was utterly enchanting. David Bizic portrayed the ‘stick in the mud’ Albert to perfection and if his singing seemed a little dull; that again may be more Massenet’s fault than the singer’s. François Piolino and Yuriy Yurchuk were excellent as the boozy ‘Little and Large’ pairing of Schmidt and Johann. (I am grateful for Richard Langham Smith’s programme essay An Opera Apart for pointing out how the almost subliminal Freischütz-like horns we hear for these characters’ music marks them out as ‘men of the forest’.) It was a pleasure to see the vastly experienced veteran, Jonathan Summers, make would he could out of the small role of the Bailli. He has little to do apart from rehearsing his children in a Christmas carol, sadly the sextet of children would not give the Von Trapp family a run for their money – despite sharing some first names with them – and were rather weak.
The performance on 27 June will be broadcast live to cinemas worldwide. For further information visit http://www.roh.org.uk/showings/werther-live-2016.