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“Ne m’accuse pas, pleure-moi!”

Jules Massenet wrote Werther at the midpoint of his very successful career.  With the voluptuous perfumeries of Le Roi de Lahore, Herodiade, Manon and Esclarmonde behind him, he was ready to explore more naturalistic subjects, including Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers had remained popular in the one hundred years since it had been first published. Even after Massenet fell from fashion, which was fairly quickly after his death, Manon and Werther continued to be staged regularly, even outside of France.

The story of a callow youth who rashly decides he can’t go on living without the young woman he loves in spite of the fact that she’s been betrothed, and then married, since they were first introduced. It brims over with some of the most romantic music ever scored and is shot through with a most exquisite melancholy.  

The plot creaks no more than most operas of its time. Still, it’s hard to keep a the snicker off your lips in the last act when our young hero asks to ‘borrow’ a pair of hunting pistols because he’s going on a ‘trip’. Someone hand this boy a cell phone and dial the number for the suicide hotline. Meanwhile, Massenet, having been dubbed Madamoiselle Wagner by his critics for his love of leitmotif, is brewing an emotional apocalypse in the pit so large, our hero’s true intention cannot be misconstrued.

Werther has to be the most extraordinarily adaptable opera in the repertoire. The leading role has been mastered by tenors sized all the way from Radames and Lohengrin to Nemorino. The noble Charlotte, who is the aforementioned unrequitee, has won triumphs for a range of voices adept at the roles of Amneris and Carmen all the way down to la petite Melisande. Mezzos and sopranos. The ever resourceful composer, with an eye on the box office reciepts, even rescored the lead for the charismatic baritone Mattia Battistini ten years after the initial premiere affording Thomas Hampson with a grateful vehicle in our own time.

This live Deutsche Grammophon recording is a vehicle of another sort as it documents the return to Covent Garden of Rolando Villazon after an absence of a number of years. More of that anon. I’m sure that the five-headed Hydra that is Universal Music/Decca/DG/Phillips would have preferred to have filmed and released a DVD if not for the fact that we already have Jonas Kaufmann in this same production from the Paris Opera. Not to be unkind but, with that sort of competition, our furry,uni-browed, Mexican tenor is much better off with the microphone.

Oddly, both presentations share the same Charlotte in mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch and I wish I could present a valid reason why this portrayal deserves a second immortalization barely two years after the first.  Being French, she, blessedly knows what the words mean but in a field crowded with some of the greatest singers of the last 80 years I’m stymied as to what warrants this extra attention. She has a middle-weight voice which, when kept quiet, shows some real beauty. When the volume gets turned up and she rises to the top of the staff, however, the tone can turn baleful. Luckily the role affords more opportunities for the cream than the curdle. It’s a lovely performance, on a small scale, that sadly pales by comparison with any of her more esteemed predecessors.

Charlotte’s husband, Albert, is a completely thankless role. A mere fractional side of a very lopsided love triangle. Norwegian bass-baritone Auden Iversen almost had me wishing we were getting the alternate version with his warm honeyed tones.  Japanese Soprano Eri Nakamura has all the requisite perkiness that the character of Charlotte’s younger sister, Sophie, requires and she betrays little accent in her French. As their father, the Bailiff, Alain Vernhes, provides plenty of character and the only true Gallic charisma of the lot.

Antonio Pappano leads his second recorded performance of this opera, following the 1998 entrant on EMI with the Alagnas as the unhappy couple. His experience with the score only benefits this performance and anyone would find the Orchestra of the Royal Opera far superior to the London Symphony. The score positively shimmers with the most delicious colorings in the orchestrations. You hear the iridescent moonlight at the end of Act One just as you feel the beginning of Fall in the hues of Act Two. Pappano brings all of this across beautifully while allowing the singers the necessary support.

The support of the evening’s tenor was surely Pappano’s primary concern. Villazon had not sung at Covent Garden since vocal difficulties had forced him to seek a doctor’s treatment for a node on his chords in April 2009. He resumed a light schedule starting in March of 2010 and this performance was May 2011. He had sung Werther previously so that was in his favor. It’s safe to point out that, in many circles, Villazon’s vocal production was cause for concern long before he started experiencing any adversities. I think it’s also common knowledge that Mr. Villazon has trouble,”getting out of his own way”, as the Irish say. He always favored a tight squillante, not only in the passaggio where it’s most attractive, but throughout his range. At its best his was an extraordinarily fluent lyric tenor and he was a gifted communicator. This recording, I’m afraid,does not show him to his best advantage.

The voice is a now shadow of what it was. The squillante remains on the top but it is only reached with effort. Pitch is insecure at the start and although he improves as the evening goes on he tires noticeably at the ends of both Act II and Act IV. The second act is a challenge for any tenor and he is swamped by the orchestra on more than once instance there. Doubly odd since DG is fiddling with the knobs, no?  For his many fans this won’t be a complete disappointment but there’s more than a whiff of ‘what if’ about this whole affair. The tremendous sense of freedom that was the hallmark of his performance style is nowhere to be heard here. It makes me very sad to say this.

So, hard to recommend unless you’re a hardcore fan of Villazon.  Here’s hoping that things improve.

 

55 comments

  • Krunoslav says:

    Thanks for the review. I must say I agree in re Sophie Koch-- have never heard anything that justifies the hype.
    Mystifying.

  • Porgy Amor says:

    Same here, re: Koch. Nothing ever has gone really wrong, in my experience, but she’s faceless. After I see or hear her in something, I just think, “Well, she was…there.”

    It sounds as though I can skip this recording. Sad but not unexpected to read this about RV.

    On both of the WERTHER DVDs released in recent years, the Alberts were top-notch — Erod in Vienna, Tezier in Paris. It didn’t seem a thankless role in the hands of either of them: Tezier cool and forbidding, Erod a little more varied and shaded (some of that due to opportunities the production gives him). Both made him seem a figure with a strong profile and a stake in these matters. I prefer by a mile Paris’s Kaufmann to Vienna’s M. Alvarez (who looks awkward, acts badly, and sings it the same way he sings Manrico), but Vienna has the more interesting production and the better Charlotte (Garanca…in every respect except French pronunciation). If I could import Kaufmann into the Vienna performance, it would be a slam dunk, because I also like P. Jordan’s livelier way with the score more than that of Plasson, and the Paris DVD also is saddled with staggeringly pretentious video direction by the Regie himself. And to the degree that I care about the Sophie, Vienna has the edge there too.

  • Andrew Powell says:

    Villazón, your “furry, uni-browed Mexican” — no racism intended, presumably — was absent from the Royal Opera for 29 months.

    Villazón “always favored a tight squillante … throughout his range.” Is this not more of a comment on the timbre of the voice?

    Koch’s performance “pales by comparison with any” of her more esteemed predecessors? A truism, no? Predecessors = Vallin, Juyol, Crespin?

    Anyone — anyone? — “would find the Orchestra of the Royal Opera far superior to the London Symphony?” You gotta be kidding.

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      I think point 2 you take issue with is actually a valid comment on Villazon’s vocal production, not just the timbre he has by nature.

      Incidentally, live in the house at these performances his top notes were tiny.

      • Andrew Powell says:

        Isn’t a squillo an expressive device, albeit an automatic one in some Latin tenors? If so, how can it exist “throughout” a singer’s range? There must be a more accurate way to describe this characteristic in the voice at these “Werther” performances.

        • Regina delle fate says:

          Squillo is the sound made by a trumpet, and refers to the clarion, open-throated, quality of a tenore robusto’s or drammatico’s high notes in the more heroic Italian operas. Del Monaco and Corelli are probably its most recently endowed owners among world-class singers. Cura had it when he was younger, but it didn’t last.

          • Andrew Powell says:

            … and so “a tight squillante … throughout his range” means a non-trumpet-like quality all the way down? This is unclear.

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Perhaps a “ring” in the voice would be a better term than “squillante.”

      • Regina delle fate says:

        The recorded performance sounds better than the live one I attended, but agreed that his top notes sound cautious and Patrick is right about the voice being a shadow of its former self. It’s hard to see where he goes from here, except that he is singing the six principal tenor roles in complete recordings of Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, Idomeneo, Tito, Entführung and Zauberflöte in for Deutsche Grammophon. I wonder whose Rodolfo at the ROH season will sound the more strained -- Rolando’s or Vittorio’s?

        • Baritenor says:

          Regina -- where did you hear this about this DG Mozart cycle? Are there any other casting/conductor/orchestra details?

        • Evenhanded says:

          Well.

          If this is true about the DG recordings, one can only sit in silent disbelief. What could the DG execs possibly be thinking? And how is it that Villazon -- a singer without a clue about appropriate Mozartian style -- has suddenly become fascinated with the Mozart operas?

          His participation in the recording of Vivaldi’s Erole sul Termodonte requires major indulgence from the listener, IMO -- he should never have been cast. Is his name truly so important that even people who should know better will cast him just to sell product?

          A glance at his website shows that he will be singing the lead in “Il re pastore” soon, with the very great role of Lucio Silla to follow next season. Who thinks this is a good idea? Whatever he used to do well, it was never a voice (or technique) suited to music from the Classical period or earlier. Can he possibly wield enough clout to record Tito and Idomeneo? How sad, if true.

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            No if about it, this has been announced, I believe.

          • Porgy Amor says:

            I’m more surprised that DG is recording six Mozart operas at all, than I am that Villazon is singing the tenor roles in all of them.

    • Andrew Powell says:

      RE: Villazón “always favored a tight squillante … throughout his range.”

      On the assumption that “squillo” is the noun and “squillante” the gerund used as a noun — and following the definitions suggested by Regina and Clita — what Patrick Mack has written makes little sense. A squillo, or the quality of squillo, could not be “tight” by definition. The nature of a squillo could not be “favored” or chosen (the singer would either have the capability or not). And, especially, the squillo could not exist or apply “throughout” a singer’s range, instead existing only at the top.

      I have thought of “squillo” as an expressive device, used or tapped in moments of excitement (e.g. in the role of Manrico). But I read today that it is also — and perhaps mainly — a means of projection: squillo capability explaining JDF being audible in the Family Circle, for instance. And JDF is not Corelli.

      • Clita del Toro says:

        I just looked up “squillante” in an Italian dictionary. It may be a gerund, but it is listed as as adjective???

        • Andrew Powell says:

          Hmm, perhaps it follows “brillo, brillante”! LOL. One online source gave me this:

          “squìllo” — s.m. — suono acuto, alto, chiaro di campana, tromba, ecc. e anche di voce umana

          “squillànte” — p.pres., agg. — acuto, vivace

      • Ilka Saro says:

        I agree that “squillo” here is not correct, or is used in a way which is difficult to understand.

        However, having listened quite a bit to Villazon in recording (alas, live only once before he began cancelling his contracts), I think, hesitantly, that perhaps the term the writer was looking for was “covered”. Villazon’s tone was always carefully — perhaps tightly — covered.

        As the writer describes it, this quality is most attractive in his middle voice. Because the cover is essential to navigating the passaggio between chest and head, many tenors have learned to make a virtue of necessity, and develop a very comely way of using the cover in the middle voice. Bjorling and Pavarotti come to mind as other examples. Covering in the middle cultivates a “noble” sound, according to the vocabulary of some teachers.

        In the top, using the cover is hotly debated. Some feel it is necessary to always cover the top. Di Stefano and Gigli stand out in this regard. Caruso as well. Villazon is in this group, and his top notes always sounded very contained in the “high dome of the palate”. Whether that is “tight” is a matter of perception. Corelli is a good example of a tenor who didn’t cover much on the top, or whose tone didn’t sound very covered on top.

        Ironically, whether covered or not, squillante high notes are expected of all tenors these days. I believe another chosen English term to describe squillo on the top is “ping”. Another Mexican, Ramon Vargas, is a good example of someone without a lot of squillo on top. But always very nicely covered!

        • Tamerlano says:

          Huh? Corelli covered like MAD…you can hear him do it over and over again. As soon as he’s around E or F the voice immediately slides into cover. He had a big brilliant top with LOADS of squillo, and part of why he was able to do that so well was that he started to cover quite low in the range. Pavarotti did it too, and often quite low in the range as well (especially as he got older). Bergonzi was another example of a tenor who covered low in the range. HE, on the other hand, famously had very little squillo at the top. When I think of the word squillo I think both “brilliant” and “tight” in the sense that the tone is concentrated and trumpet-like…it has ping.

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          I agree with Tamerlano on Corelli. And I disagree with Ilka Saro on Di Stefano- he came up withna lot of raw, uncultivated top notes without any cover, hence the brevity of his prime.

          • PushedUpMezzo says:

            Exactly. Corelli’s top notes were so squillo because he covered the lower range so well. It’s a matter of contrast and surprise, I suppose rather than pure dynamics. Squillo galore sounds rather naughty too. Best taken a little at a time.

          • Andrew Powell says:

            @PushedUpMezzo, this implies a divergence: use of squillo vs. covering.

            What do *you* make of Patrick Mack’s words “favored a tight squillante … throughout his range”?

            Patrick Mack has not clarified yet.

        • Andrew Powell says:

          Interesting post. Grazie! — without getting into what di Stefano and Corelli did or didn’t do.

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        Not true that squillo timbre cannot be tight by definition- what makes you say that? It needs a degree of concentration by definition, I’d say.

        • Andrew Powell says:

          … “tight” would suggest narrow, controlled — the opposite of clarion, open-throated, ringing, etc.

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield says:

    The standard is (of course) Dame Janet with Brecknock. The tense, astringent quality of her tone suit the character’s unhappiness, and her utterance of the splendid English text far outstrips the vulgar Gallic efforts of Vallin, de los Angeles and Horrid American von Stade (who usurped plum roles at Lewes from Our Own Joy Blackham and Cynthia Buchan).

    Plus one hears such underappreciated artists as Harold Blackburn and Patrick Wheatley.

    • Andrew Powell says:

      Fricka is up there with Bach, Verdi, and Sir Charles Mackerras as someone above all censure.

      • PushedUpMezzo says:

        Yes Fricka is rather scary -- certainly Flicka (who never sang Fricka)is pretty irreproachable, even in Sound of Music. Ballad of Flicka and Fricka would be a nice cabaret number for her.

        • Andrew Powell says:

          I thought Flicka was a horse. Meant the nice mezzo, not the ornery Mrs. Wotan.

    • PushedUpMezzo says:

      Joyce Blackham, your reverence. Too much sweet sherry?

      • PushedUpMezzo says:

        And of course the under-appreciated Koch is also a popular Fricka in Paris. Haven’t seen her in that role, but her Venus at the Bastille was formidable.

        • oedipe says:

          Koch is also a formidable Strauss interpreter: Octavian, Der Komponist (who is better in the role today?).

          • operaguy says:

            Koch has released an album of Strauss Songs with Phillipe Entremont (whatever happened to him?) at the piano. It’s on my “to listen to” pile; haven’t heard it yet. But it looks interesting. (Disclaimer -- I will be retailing it; somewhere).

          • Feldmarschallin says:

            Well Garanca and di Donato for example.

          • oedipe says:

            To the best of my knowledge, neither Garanca nor di Donato are reputed for their interpretations of Der Komponist, which they have rarely sung. Garanca sang it only once a few years ago at the ROH and doesn’t seem very eager to reprise it, it would seem. As for di Donato, I prefer her in roles other than Strauss.

    • Regina delle fate says:

      “Horrid American von Stade” was, of course, adored at Glyndebourne in the 1970s even though she only sang two plum roles there: Cherubino, in which she was followed four seasons later on tour by the then young Cynthia Buchan; the other role was Penelope in the production originally staged for Janet Baker. Their interpretations were quite different but equally valid and acclaimed. By the 1970s, JoyCE Blackham would not have been considered for either role by Glyndebourne. If she had sung there then it would have been as Marcellina or Ericlea, perhaps. But she didn’t.

  • If one wants to have an idea of what Italians mean by squillo, listen to Giacomo Lauri Volpi.

    • Clita del Toro says:

      And MdM!!!

    • operaguy says:

      I took from what the OP wrote that Villazon is using a “tight” production throughout the range, emphasizing the higher overtones and trying to produce excitement and drama rather than a more rounded tone. The tight production is often a characteristic of French tenors. This type of production can lead to a rapid vibrato that is sometimes denigrated as a “goat voice”. But Corelli often used such a production, and of course, Lauri-Volpi.

      But, given the few opera recordings being made now, was this one that cried out to be made? There are many fine recording that have different points of view -- Von Stade with Carreras being far from Gallic, but rather italianate in it’s passion; the classic Villon and Thill; Troyanos and Kraus (not an obvious match, but it works). There is even a Di Stefano/Simionato live performance that embraces (on the tenor’s part) a very improvisatory approach to the actual notes.

    • enzo says:

      http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/history/sounds/player.aspx?t=48

      Here is Lauri Volpi and here is squillo galore.

  • Constantine A. Papas says:

    Mario Lanza had the most natural squillo. Unfortunately, commercialism killed him and it.

  • kashania says:

    I admit that I’m confused. I always thought that “squillo” bascially meant “overtones” and a tenor either has it in his voice or not. I associate it with the quality of the voice, not a technique. Pavarotti had lots of squillo which give his voice more “presence” on recordings even though it was a medium sized voice. I also think of MdM, Corelli and Lauri-Volpi when I think of squillo. I just don’t think of it as a technical matter.

    Now, covering is a technical issue and is up to the singer whether they employ it or not. Most tenors cover the voice in the passagio, though Di Stefano didn’t cover in the passagio which gave his voice that raw (sometimes screamy) quality but he did cover above the passagio. MdM covered even below the passagio.

  • phoenix says:

    Very interesting. Do you readers really think Sophie Koch has a disinctive, beautfiul enough tone & style so as to deserve 2 major DVD releases as Charlotte?

    • phoenix says:

      typos: ‘distinctive’ ‘beautiful’

    • Porgy Amor says:

      She’s not on two DVDs, as far as I know; the one with Villazon and Pappano is audio-only.

      As far as whether she deserves two major commercial releases in any format, as someone said on THE WIRE, “Deserve ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.” The role is in her repertoire, she has sung it at major houses, and she was in the cast of two performances that were recorded (in both of which cases the tenor is the major selling point). I don’t think anyone at DG or Decca was thinking, “The Charlotte of Sophie Koch is absolutely the best the world has to offer, and must be documented for posterity like the great Charlottes of the past.” There are two DVDs with the Aida of Violeta Urmana, two DVDs with the Wozzeck of Falk Struckmann, two DVDs with the Jack Rance of Lucio Gallo, et cetera.

      Sometimes, especially when a recording’s origin is a broadcast performance, it’s just about being in the right place at the right time.

    • oedipe says:

      Forgod’ssake, a DVD of Carmen with Magdalena Kozena has just been released! Is it deserved, necessary, relevant, of interest?

      • oedipe says:

        Incidentally, I am not very fond of Koch’s Charlotte (I much prefer her in Strauss) but many people in France are. But then, what do they know about Massenet?

        • lorenzo.venezia says:

          oedipe, Koch’s Les Nuits d’Ete with the orchestra at La Fenice was quite lovely I thought.

      • PushedUpMezzo says:

        Parterrians have been eagerly awaiting the LadyRattle Carmen almost as much as the De Niese Tosca