Fine Production of Werther at Covent Garden

Massenet, Werther: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano (conductor), ROH, London, 5.5.2011 (CC)

Werther – Rolando Villazón
Charlotte – Sophie Koch
Sophie – Eri Nakamura
Albert – Audun Iversen
The Bailli –  Alain Vernhes
Johann  – Darren Jeffrey
Schmidt – Stuart Patterson
Brühlmann  –  Zhengzhong Zhou
Käthchen – Anna Devin

This revival of Benoit Jacquot’s 2004 production of Massenet’s magnificent Werther showcased the international superstar Rolando Villazón, who here sang the title role for the first time for the Royal Opera (he has performed it previously in Vienna and Paris). Villazón has had his fair share of knocks recently. It is debatable perhaps whether the ravages of illness, or the nauseating TV show “Popstar to Operastar” has done him most harm. The latter was a disaster of a programme, but at least the damage wasn’t physical. Hearing him here, Villazón was sometimes drowned by Pappano and his players. Yet “Nature, pleine de grâce” was superbly done, with a lovely full-toned high register. More, Villazón was ardent and lyrical throughout, nowhere more so than in his third act “Pourquoi me réveiller”, where his long lines were a joy. Werther’s torment came across, and his death was remarkably touching. He’s clearly not a singer at his peak, though.

In fact Villazón was trumped by his Charlotte, the French mezzo Sophie Koch (who sang the role opposite Villazón in Vienna in 2008). She is clearly an intelligent singer with a lovely, fresh, golden voice (and a simply amazingly formed lower register). Her vocal agility seemed subservient to her magnificent character portrayal. Eri Nakamura as Sophie was the perfect foil

Pappano seems just as at home in French opera as he is in Italian. He famously recorded this opera for EMI with the then dream-team of Ghiorghiu and Alagna. On the present occasion, the orchestra was on magnificent form. Pappano illuminated a multitude of details while always respecting the music’s trajectory. The tissue delicacy of Massenet’s scoring was always to the fore. There was a nice sheen to the violins (no untoward shrillness). The occasional balance problem with Villazón apart, it was as much the orchestra’s evening as it was Koch’s.

If there was a real problem in the casting, it initially seemed to be the Albert of Audun Iversen, a Norwegian baritone here making his Covent Garden debut. He lacked vocal heft in the first act, and if things improved on the musical front in the second act, he remained positively stilted in acting terms. The smaller roles were all well taken, with Alain Vernhes as the mayor of the town a particular delight.

Jacquot’s production is interesting. Massenet’s adaptation of Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of the Young Werther) is impeccable. Goethe’s book had captured the imagination of a whole generation of artists, as it seemed the quintessential example of Zeitgeist in words. Jacquot’s production shows a debt to Vilhelm Hammershøi in its dark colours and shadows (anyone who enjoyed the Royal Academy of Arts’ 2008 Hammershøi exhibition, “The Poetry of Silence”, will love this). Act 1 shows a scene in which angles from walls seem skewed to invoke claustrophobia (a reflection of the claustrophobic society that Werther and Sophie must necessarily act outside of?), while the painted turbulent skies of the second act take up most of the set, poignantly. Claustrophobia returns writ large in the final act, where we see the room where Werther says his final farewells in cross-section. The inwardly sloping angles all point towards an interiorisation that ends in mortal death.

A final mention should go to the children’s choirs (Trinity School, Croydon and Cumnor House School Choir), who delivered so well in the opera’s opening act. This is a lovely production, superbly conducted and with some superb singers in the cast. Those who go to see Villazón alone will be looking in the wrong direction, though. Revel in the magnificent rendition of Massenet’s beautiful orchestration under Pappano’s loving care, and enjoy Sophie Koch’s Charlotte while being stimulated by the sets. Performances continue until May 21st (that one a 7pm start) – and note that the opera will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday, June 4th at 6pm.

Colin Clarke