Cher Public

Werther, original

kaufmann_amazonDecca has released a remarkable performance of Massenet’s great romantic tragedy Werther. Filmed live in January 2010, this performance stands out primarily for the great singing and dramatic vitality of the principals, particularly the remarkable Werther of Jonas Kaufmann.

It is rare to hear a tenor voice with this much heft, body and color phrase and shape musical lines with such lyricism and pathos. High notes ring out thrillingly or shimmer with retrained longing, as needed, and Kaufmann dramatically embodies this tortured soul to the point that it is hard to separate singer and part. Add Mr. Kaufmann’s matinee-idol good looks, and there is not much else to say.

Sophie Koch’s nicely realized Charlotte is also highly enjoyable. Charlotte is a difficult part to cast, with simplicity and directness to her vocal writing in Acts One and Two that belie the range and dramatic heft required by Acts Three Four. The same thing applies to the character. The sweet, innocent young woman we see at the start also has a will of iron. She throws away her own chance of happiness in order to do what she thinks is expected of her. Then, as the disastrous consequences of that choice unfold, she at first finds the strength to resist a love she can scarcely acknowledge, and finally finds the courage to surrender to that love, flying to his side in a moment that always reminds me of Jeanette MacDonald running through the snow trying to reach Nelson Eddy in Maytime.

Anyway, Ms. Koch gets a lot more of this right than most. To begin with, she possesses a beautiful, clear, firm mezzo soprano voice that she wields with ease and technical security. She is also a fine actress, illuminating this complex young woman from the inside out. If her singing is not quite at the exalted level of her male colleagues, her performance is still something to savor.

As Albert, baritone Ludovic Tezier makes a big impression in what is normally a “throw-away” part. Scenes that normally pass by unnoticed, like the confrontation with Werther in Act Two, have real dramatic weight and vocal heft, and propel the story forward in a stronger, more convincing way.

I wish I could say the same for Anne-Catherine Gillet. She is a perfectly serviceable Sophie, but Sophie needs to “sparkle” both dramatically and vocally. She also needs to do it in a such a way that she doesn’t come across like a giddy nitwit. It’s not an easy assignment, and Ms. Gillet is not quite up to the challenge. In all honesty, her physical appearance doesn’t help. Perky blondes tend to liven things up better than tall, sombre brunettes. (And will someone please do something about those eyebrows!)

Andreas Jäggi (Schmidt) and Christian Tréguier (Johann) play the town drunks. I only mention it because they provide a text-book example of “how to” and “how not to” be a good comprimario. Mr. Tréguier gives a lovely performance. He is charmingly funny, does a very convincing drunk, sings well, always stays in character, and keeps his shenanigans within the context of the rest of the production. Mr. Jäggi on the other hand, gives one of the most annoying, heavy-handed, over-sung, over-the-top, out-of-control comprimario performances I’ve ever seen.

Not surprisingly, Maestro Michel Plasson leads the orchestra with a sure hand, and they play with style, grace, beauty and élan. Just wonderful!

The production, by Benoit Jacquot, was created at Covent Garden in 2004. His set designs tend toward big, sparse and slightly surreal, but he guides the stage action with a clear understanding of dramatic pacing and visual story telling. This makes his ill-conceived, wrong-headed choices as video director all the more surprising.

Partnering with Louise Narboni, he decides to constantly cross-cut images of the action on-stage with preparations going on backstage during the performance! For example: Just before Werther’s entrance, we are treated to a shot of Mr. Kaufmann standing backstage with this dresser putting on his glasses, fluffing his hair, checking his costume, etc., before an abrupt cut to him entering a scene already in progress onstage.

Most of the time the off-stage demeanor of the cast is in direct contrast to the mood onstage, and the presence of 21st century stage hands dealing with 21st century stage craft creates a constant, awkward, anachronistic juxtaposition of “illusion” and “reality” that goes a long way toward ruining the video. Fortunately, the remarkably high level of singing and music making ultimately carry the day and make this a “must-have” for opera lovers.

  • callasorphan

    I am going to buy it--it sounds wonderful PLUS I love the opera!!

  • JK is indeed as splendid here are this review relates. He really gives as close to perfect a performance of the role as I can imagine. Koch and Tezier are fine, and the production looks solid and mostly works (in spite of the annoying video direction noted above). But I found Plasson’s conducting ponderous -- I thought the “genre” scenes would just never end -- and lacking the tension that this music’s smoldering underlying passion should create.

    • That’s “…splendid here *as* this review relates…” -- of course!

  • Chanterelle

    Glad this is out in US format. After seeing it on TV I had to run out and buy a ticket even though I don’t really like the opera. Kaufmann is the real deal, and this is one of his better roles.

  • I just saw Kaufmann and Koch in this in Vienna on Monday. Shame Plasson didn’t come too. The two of them were great but the conducting by Frédéric Chaslin was not, too fast and loud and unsubtle. Dramatically, I liked how Kaufmann played Werther as shy and depressed rather than just poetically dreamy, I thought it made the character more sympathetic than usual. Different production from this video, though (Andrei Serban, set in the 1950’s, quite good).

  • Edward George

    Jacquot clearly has an interest in showing performers “backstage” as he does something similar with his cutaway shots in his Tosca film, showing us the creation of the performance and not just the performance itself. Having been there the night this was broadcast, this insight has a special resonance although I can completely understand how it may spoil the experience for others. He also breaks the fourth wall within the production, having both Werther and Sophie enter through the auditorium: a murmur ran through the audience as we were within touching distance of Jonas and spitting distance of Koch (rather than Werther and Charlotte).

    Tezier’s insights may have been influenced by his playing Werther in the baritone version. I found the last act incredibly intimate and moving. For more anachronistic Jonas backstage try:

  • Batty Masetto

    I couldn’t agree more with the review. In spite of the blunders in the video direction, those who think they don’t like Werther should definitely see this. When Massenet is on form, as he is here, much of the strength of the work lies between the lines, and Kaufmann and Koch do a beautiful job of bringing out the unsaid ways in which the bond between the two characters grows and changes. If they’re played too broadly, Werther becomes little more than a self-absorbed stalker and Charlotte a tease and a prig. But Kaufmann sings so beautifully and honestly in the last scene of Act 1, and Koch is visibly so on the verge of giving in, that the whole relationship from then on becomes richly layered and magnetic.

    • Donna Anna

      The review echoes my experience of this production. Searing performances from Kaufmann and Koch and the stark simplicity of the scenic design created a world at once vast and claustrophobic. Kaufmann’s Werther is less a romantic; he’s somber and serious. His character would have worried me, although that gorgeous voice and that gorgeous face erase any concerns.
      The backstage cuts are jarring and a distraction but overall, it’s a keeper.

  • Clita del Toro

    OT: Simon B:

    Leonora da Pin-Yenta attended the rehearsal loved it: he said that Hvor gave a truly great performance as Simon; Frittoli and the basso were excellent as was the new tenor; and the Paolo (who?) was extremely effective.
    “Run and see it!”

    • cosmodimontevergine

      But the Met Boccanegra is so offensive visually! I can’t sit still and look at those awful Hallmark greeting cards that pass for sets -better a concert performance. (and then there are those ghastly costumes -!ike Halloween drag from Ricky’s)

      • scifisci

        More problematic I think are the vast spaces the performers must sing in for much of the time.

  • I adore this performance. This scene and duet is so HOT it practically melts my DVD player:

    • iltenoredigrazia

      Orgasmic music and performance.

      Kauffman seems to be at a career peak where everything he does is superlative. I sure wish we still had the opportunities that we had years ago to see a singer in a variety of roles within two or three seasons, even if only for a couple of performances per role.

      Example: Corelli.
      1st season: Trovatore, Turandot, Don Carlo
      2nd season: Tosca, Aida, Turandot, Gioconda
      3rd season: Chenier, Ernani, Aida, Adriana, Turandot

    • callasorphan

      Mother of god, my computer just melted!!

  • Here’s a question. Is it the practice of Parisian Opera audiences NOT to interrupt a performance with applause?? If Jonas had sung that rendition of Pourquoi Me Reveiller at the Met, the roof would have come off the building with applause! I went to ALCINA at the Palais Garnier a few years ago and I seem to remember applause during the performance.

    • ianw2

      In my limited experience, they tend to bottle it all up until the curtain calls, which sometimes seem to drag on to such an extent it seems to almost become parody. I broke my own don’t-leave-during-bows rule after a performance of Pique Dame where the curtain calls had been going on for about twenty minutes, despite the rapidly depleting audience and applause dying out. There was silence, then BAM, the curtain came back up again and the applause grudgingly started up. They repeated this about five or six times, from memory, before I left.

    • oedipe

      French etiquette (love it or leave it): it is considered very rude to interupt a performance with applause, especially if the music is still playing.