Massenet, Werther. Metropolitan Opera, 2/28/2014. New production directed by Richard Eyre, conducted by Alain Altinoglu with Sophie Koch (Charlotte), Jonas Kaufmann (Werther), Lisette Oropesa (Sophie), David Bizic (Albert), assorted drinking buddies and children.Richard Eyre’s production is inexplicably set in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, meaning around the time of the opera’s composition. For the most part it’s a precious, prim, slightly kitschy piece of work. In the first act, Rob Howell's set mixes the realistic (trees, outdoor furniture) with the slightly distancing (a crooked, cantilevered proscenium frame, and visible stage boards). But the effect is storybook, not Verfremdung. There’s some good Personenregie in the interactions between the characters, and when that takes over it begins to feel like a real story. When Werther crashes into Charlotte’s library in Act 3, there’s a melodramatic lighting cue and there’s a feeling like the story has finally started—from that point there's some decent angst. But too often Eyre seems more interesting in gilding the lily, ending up with romance rather than Romanticism.
|Set for Act II of L'elisir d'amore, I mean, Act II of Werther|
|Clair de lune|
And somehow among this scenery, Werther doesn’t make much of an impression at all, particularly when his sole distinguishing features are a very large coat and a disinclination to stand downstage center. I mean, you have to believe that he is at least somewhat weird in seeing this ordinary town and ordinary people as magical, right? Here the superficial beauty of the setting renders his enchantment banal and vaguely commodified. What’s more, the choice of time period makes this worse. If it’s the fin de siècle, suffering for love was a basic rite of passage for any self-respecting young man, and marital custom was in what one might call an It Gets Better stage. What makes him so special? (Really, why this setting? Downton Abbey is not a correct answer.)
Kaufmann doesn’t really come alive until the end of Act 2, at which point the opera seems to shift in a higher gear itself. Before that he basically hung around extreme stage right and kept a lid on his large and gnarly baritonal voice. Though I could always hear him, I wondered why he wasn’t making a bigger impression (in Wien he arguably overacted Werther as weird). But when Werther decides the situation is serious, Kaufmann did too, and the rest of the evening from "Lorsque l'enfant" on was very exciting singing. He went back to the quiet stuff for the death act, which is a ridiculously drawn out scene with at least three Not Dead Yet moments but his gradual downward trajectory was vocally kind of beautiful, so I was inclined not to begrudge him this lengthy period of expiration.
Koch, in contrast, was a fidgety and if anything overly demonstrative Charlotte. From the start she is obviously interested in Werther and only minimally charmed by Albert. It’s hard to believe Koch is only now making her Met debut; she can fill the theater like an expert, and particularly by the end of "Laisse couler mes larmes" she was sounding like our next Fricka (a role I heard her sing in Munich quite well). She’s got a lachrymose, distinctive tone that is quite big for Charlotte, though sometimes it has a bit of a hollow quality. I did not believe for a second, however, that her Charlotte was about to follow in Werther’s footsteps, as the ending of the staging suggested. What about les enfants?
The supporting roles were excellent: David Bizic made a stellar debut as Albert, with a clean and focused baritone, and Met regular Lisette Oropesa’s sparking soprano with its quick vibrato was perfect as a Sophie who, while cheery, still has some backbone.
Worth seeing, but less so if you’ve seen Kaufmann and Koch in this before. The HD broadcast is on March 15. You can watch some short videos on the Met's website, which are unfortunately not embeddable.
*Related, because it’s around this section: I went to this performance with some undergraduates from my department (thanks for the nice seats, Department!). After the first half, they all had one question: who the hell is Klopstock? They were asking, of course, about two minor characters, Brühlmann and Kätchen, who appear in each other’s arms and utter only three words over a progression that is taking its sweet time to get back to its home base of C major:
She: Divin Klopstock!
**I was chatting with a harpsichordist friend over the weekend and whined about this point. She pointed out that in the nineteenth century many harpsichord cases were given internal organ transplants and made into pianos. So it’s POSSIBLE. But not very likely.
Some more photos (all copyright Ken Howard/Met):
|Insel Verlag is always a quality choice|