A Mixed-Bag Massenet Werther from Oviedo

SpainSpain J. Massenet: Werther, Principado de Asturias Orchestra, Yves Abel (conductor), Oviedo’s Teatro Campoamor, 17.9.2012 (JMI)


Werther: José Bros
Charlotte: Nancy Fabiola Herrera
Albert: Marc Barrard
Sophie: Elena de la Merced
Le Bailli: Víctor García Sierra
Johann: David Sánchez
Schmidt: Jon Plazaola


Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie
Direction: Guy Joosten
Sets: Johannes Leiacker
Costumes: Jorge Jara
Lighting: Davy Cunningham

 Picture courtesy Opera de Oviedo © carlospictures


Werther returned to Oviedo after 20 years of absence still carrying with it memories of Alfredo Kraus, the protagonist on that last occasion. It was obvious that comparisons would be inevitable.

As well as the importance of the singer in the title role, this opera presents other problems not easily overcome by any opera company. First of all, it is usually referenced as a romantic work while on the other hand, it is a French opera, with a very distinctive style. The stage direction is supposed to provide a vision consistent with Goethe’s romanticism while the musical direction has to pay special attention to the nuances and details that are so important to French operas of the period. If any of the three aspects fails – the singer is generally the most obvious but all are important – Werther as a whole cannot succeed. In Oviedo the stage production did indeed miss the mark, the music was less than outstanding while Werther himself had a mixture of light and shadow.

The stage production had its premiere at Theater an der Wien some 10 years ago and has always felt like a disappointment. It is a kind of minimalist production that occupies a decidedly small space, only about one third of the whole stage. The sets are almost the same for all four acts, consisting of the same small room, whether the action takes place inside or outside, as in the second act. The costumes however correspond to the first half of 19th century, the period known as Biedermeier, and are well-chosen. Lighting has its own surprises, including the death of Werther in the last act, which one normally associates with a dark and depressing atmosphere. Here it is outstandingly luminous.

Guy Joosten’s direction is full of other inconsistencies and it is often more than difficult to fit what we see together with what we hear. Le Bailli is portrayed as a despotic and violent man, leaving the house in the first act after menacing Sophie – while Johann and Schmidt are both shown as lecherous drunkards for some reason. In the second act Mr. Joosten puts an outdoor scene into the same enlosed room that he uses in the first act, and this really cannot work, unless coupled with very imaginative character directing, which we did not see. There is no proper harpsichord for the Ossian aria, as the libretto requires, and Albert also becomes violent, threatening Charlotte with a gun exactly as she threatened Werther only minutes before. By and large this production deserves to be forgotten.

The musical direction was in the hands of Yves Abel, whose performance was good, despite suffering from comparison with the lesson on how to conduct Werther, provided by Michel Plasson in Seville some 4 and half years ago. Mr Abel conducted with a sure hand however and took the score with good rhythm but I missed some necessary nuances and details, which are not secondary considerations in a Massenet opera. Overall, I felt that the music went better in the more dramatic moments, while in the most intimate ones, the emotional temperature fell somehow. I do understand though that it can be no easy task to ask for such subtleries when one has the Principado de Asturias Orchestra in the pit: they have been substantially below their usual level in the last year or so.

Bros was a very good interpreter of Werther. He phrased in an impeccable way and his singing was nicely expressive, both very important elements in this role. His diction was also faultless, by no means a secondary matter, when singing Werther. Now and again however, some noticeable nasal accents were present and I felt that his biggest problem was the the fact that his top register, when delivered at forte, is still showing an uncontrolled vibrato, like a sign of a tired voice, and not common in a singer of his age. This is nothing new in Bros, but it does seem that he cannot correct it. This is a pity because otherwise he is a remarkable singer with a range of vocal colour of no small importance.

Mezzo soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera made for a convincing Charlotte from the point of view of stage presentation, but she also she some vocal problems. Her low notes are rather weak and the top register is very tight, with serious pitch problems.

Sophie is a character ideal for a light soprano, who is generally entrusted to a promising young singer. In Oviedo they had bet on the safe side with Elena de la Merced. She was very good in the role, but then I cannot remember hearing a bad Sophie.

Sadly, the French baritone Marc Barrard has not much to offer these days as Albert and I can think of better alternatives available in Spain.

In the supporting roles the best singing came from Jon Plazaola as Schmidt. David Sanchez’s voice, as Johann, was not to my liking at all and Victor Garcia Sierra was a coarse Bailli.

Teatro Campoamor commemorated its 120th anniversary with this performance which was celebrated with the orchestra playing Happy birthday to round it off.

The audience gave a polite reception to the artists but without much enthusiasm.

Jose Mª. Irurzun