Cher Public

Crazy in love

I am, perhaps instinctively, skeptical of those who commit suicide. And yet Vittorio Grigolo somehow makes it look so good—even when covered in blood. 

He recently showed New York audiences how sexy suicide can be when he sang the role of Roméo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette earlier this year. His work in that opera was exemplary of the romantic notions attending self-destruction. However, in Werther he extended his good looks and gorgeous tenor to the extreme, making toxic notions of liebestod even more attractive.

As the eponymous protagonist of Massenet’s opera at the Met, his muscular tenor, bold and wonderfully guileless, sailed through the score Thursday night. He is a singularly robust singer, vibrating with longing, frustration, and despair; his performance was reckless in all the right ways, abandoning itself to the role’s demands.

In stark contrast, but no less attractive, the handsome beauty and resolute vocal security of Isabel Leonard’s Charlotte provided a balance to Grigolo’s manic Werther. Her stoical loyalty to her husband, cracking slightly under the pressure of Werther’s impassioned erotic overtures, was a tight foil for Grigolo’s high-octane affect. Less flashy, but no less impressive, the mezzo-soprano richly conveyed nuance and a variegated emotional palette. This was especially true during the famous aria “Va! laisse couler mes larmes” from Act III.

As her younger sister Sophie, Anna Christy seemed out of place within the milieu onstage. Her soprano wavered in intonation, sounding weak and under-supported. She seemed to take her role, deceptively complex in its relationship to Werther and Charlotte, for granted: she lacked depth—a radiant, innocent confusion from her vantage point of observation—and thus she seemed superfluous.

And the same could be said of Maurizio Muraro and David Bizic, in the supporting roles of the Bailiff and Albert, though their vocalism was notably more secure than Christy’s. As Charlotte’s father and husband, their mechanical embodiments of the pressures attending her female subjectivity lacked specificity and menace. They were so easily brushed aside by the force and passionate bravado of Grigolo’s dreamy Werther.

Edward Gardner led the Met Orchestra with touching sensitivity, drawing from the score an aching melancholy. Similarly, Richard Eyre’s production has an effectively temporal quality, moving serenely through time and space, elegant and nostalgic with cinematic touches. The production is well suited for the two lead performers, who boast movie-star good looks as well as world-class voices.

The opera’s plot, based on the novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther by Goethe, is disturbing and impolite. Werther, an emotional and sensitive poet, falls in love with Charlotte. However, Charlotte has promised her deceased mother to marry Albert. Charlotte’s vow makes her unavailable to Werther, who struggles and fails to accept this reality. As a result, he chooses to end his life with a pistol.

Beyond the glorification of Werther’s suicide, the romance of his emotional turmoil is unnerving to modern sensibilities, where mental illness and depression are treated with the gravitas they deserve. In Massenet’s opera, the protagonist is romanticized as the lover par excellence, a man so devoted to his beloved that he would rather die than live in a world without her.

This notion is bleakly destructive: a male suitor once again holding a woman hostage through threats of destruction. One cannot help but think of Carmen—the ruder, more impolite stepbrother to Werther. In both instances, the male protagonist throws a hissy fit because he cannot get what he wants: in Carmen’s case, Don José destroys both Carmen and himself.

Fortunately for Charlotte, Werther’s destruction is relegated only to his body, and he leaves her in good health, free to continue her life with Albert. And yet, perhaps this comparison is unfair, as Charlotte reciprocates Werther’s longing, while in the end Carmen doesn’t seem to feel much of anything for Don José.

If one can complain about any aspect of Eyre’s production, it’s that self-destruction, suicide, and depression go unchecked. We are asked to buy into Massenet’s reading of the text; untreated mental illness remains free of critique; Werther is worthy of our celebration, awe, and reverence. In my view, this is a sentimental, immature understanding of what it means to love.

However, I believe a counter claim might be constructed in favor of Werther as a celebration of love as mental illness. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that love is a kind of madness. He instructs the young, impressionable Phaedrus, “the best things we have come from madness, when it is given as a gift of the god.” One of these gifts is clearly the madness of Eros. And this is the same insanity that grips Werther.

Maybe one could argue in favor of Werther’s convictions, his refusal to do business as usual. In this sense, I suppose he might be understood as an obliquely queer figure, refusing to play along with the accepted roles of his gender. Unable to hurt anyone but himself, he withdraws from the world in an act of radical anti-social behavior. In that sense—as politically incorrect as it might sound, and as Plato argues in Phaedrus—Werther’s love for Charlotte is a kind of mental illness, madness bestowed upon him by the gods.

Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Dying for love is impractical, melodramatic, and a few other negatives, but the passion that attends such love is something that many people envy--even as they dutifully marry people they don’t particularly dislike, raise their siblings instead of telling Dad to find a stepmother, and so on. Is Werther mentally ill? Is Romeo? Is Juliet? For them, the world is well lost for love. It’s a choice most of us are uncomfortable with, and so we trudge on.

    Love Charlotte’s gown, although it’s probably not repressed enough for her. I picture her as buttoned up to the neck.

  • Rowna Sutin

    I listened to the opera on Sirius XM opening night. I couldn’t see the singers, but I knew the production, having attended the opera when it starred Mr. Kaufmann and Ms. Koch a few years back. Just to be clear, Vittorio Grigolo was sensational. He managed to give a vocally bravura performance yet never neglected the fine musical points. He is a unique artist. I hope I get to hear him “in the house” soonest!

    • DonCarloFanatic

      I first saw him as the son in Renee Fleming’s Lucrezia at the WNO, and was impressed. His hair was spiky blond for that. He had a ton of energy.

    • calaf47

      There was a new Charlotte tonight….Veronica Simeoni. She was sensational….beautiful voice and good actress…better than her leading man who vaulted everything he sang to the last row of the Family circle. Hardly eloquent or musical.

  • Ivy Lin

    Not sure that Werther can be looked at from a modern clinical psychiatric lens. They didn’t have SSRI’s and therapists at the time. And even if they did, I think the themes of unrequited love and despair are universal and timeless and works of art that convey this feeling (whether it’s Werther or Phantom of the Opera or an Adele album) are always going to be popular.

  • Lohenfal

    “Fortunately for Charlotte, Werther’s destruction is relegated only to
    his body, and he leaves her in good health, free to continue her life
    with Albert.”

    In Goethe’s novel, the ending is ambiguous. “Man fürchtete für Lottens Leben.” Sure, she doesn’t die like Carmen, but it’s questionable whether she survives Werther’s suicide for very long, and even if she does, whether or not her marriage to Albert will remain functional. In the Massenet, her last words are also debatable: “tout est fini.” Not exactly “good health.”

    • grimoaldo2

      Thackery’s riff on the matter:
      ” Sorrows of Werther

      William Makepeace Thackeray

      WERTHER had a love for Charlotte
      Such as words could never utter;
      Would you know how first he met her?
      She was cutting bread and butter.

      Charlotte was a married lady, 5
      And a moral man was Werther,
      And for all the wealth of Indies
      Would do nothing for to hurt her.

      So he sigh’d and pin’d and ogled,
      And his passion boil’d and bubbled, 10
      Till he blew his silly brains out,
      And no more was by it troubled.

      Charlotte, having seen his body
      Borne before her on a shutter,
      Like a well-conducted person, 15
      Went on cutting bread and butter.”

      • Lohenfal

        I’ve always been amused by Thackeray’s anti-Romantic comment. Obviously, he thought that Charlotte didn’t suffer the breakdown that Goethe suggests.

  • Pirelli

    “Beyond the glorification of Werther’s suicide…”

    The WHAT? Did you mean the “dramatization” of? I certainly don’t think the act is glorified.

    • Armerjacquino

      I think it’s fair to say that the Romantic movement in general romanticised young death, especially young death for love, especially the young death for love of someone passionate and intense. So yes, I’d say it’s perfectly possible to say the book and in turn the opera ‘glorify’ his suicide.

      • Pirelli

        I see your point. ;-)

      • It’s worth pointing out, contrary to other assertions here, that there is tremendous irony in Goethe’s work, making it one of the most original and remarkable novels of its time. First of all there is NO omniscient narrator.

        Werther’s story is told in letters selected by an EDITOR who is not otherwise identified. Goethe immediately invites the readers skepticism. Who is this editor, what is his or her relationship to Werther? What has s/he changed, omitted? What other manipulations has s/he performed? It is the editor who describes Werther’s death (based on what, though?), very clinically describing what happens when someone shoots themselves in the head. And it is the editor who reports or makes up the very end of the novel. There are conventional statements about Lotte’s grief and Albert’s discomfort. But what are we to make of them?

        There is also the issue of the two boys Werther has apparently been drawn to, sketching them wrestling. They are at his deathbed and are overcome with sorrow. Then there is the person to whom Werther writes his letters, his closest friend, a young man named Wilhelm. There is his interest in a working man from the nearby village who ends up killing his employer. And finally, when commanded by his overwhelming mother who controls the purse strings, to continue his career as a diplomat (he would rather wander the woods and sketch boys) there is his ambiguous involvement with “The Prince”. And let’s not forget Werther’s love for the “butch” Albert.

        Werther fails in this diplomatic endeavor because he finds another unavailable object, a certain well born young lady who seeing his clumsiness at a ball, snubs him.

        So we have an odd young fellow whose closest relationships are to other young men and boys, with an overwhelming mother, who in dealing with women is only drawn to those who are unobtainable.

        What does that sound like to you?

        Then we have Werther’s embarrassing translations of “Ossian”. This was a famous literary fraud. Ossian, a “Blind Gaelic Bard” was made up by the Scottish Poet James Macpherson — something of which Goethe was fully aware. That there is something fraudulent about Werther is strongly implied as his letters accumulate. He is a poseur and a dilettante, a rich boy without ambition who moons about rejecting ladies while flirting with boys.

        The genesis of the novel was autobiographical. While living in Wetzlar where the novel is set, Goethe fell in love with Charlotte Buff, who was engaged to and deeply in love with his friend, Kestner. Buff rejected Goethe (cruelly, according to Goethe) and he fled in despair then got back at her in the novel where Lotte is a provincial drab of the most conventional dreariness.

        The novel was read selectively by young people of both sexes, more than 1000 of whom committed suicide, and many dressed like Werther. They connected to Werther’s feeling of being an outsider, too sensitive to live.

        But adults read the novel more accurately. It is tremendously absorbing and certainly ambiguous, but it’s irony is constant and nothing in it is to be taken too literally as Goethe makes clear at every point. His extraordinary narrative control had a huge influence. One of the most interesting echoes of Werther is Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece, Pale Fire, where a lunatic supplies “academic” notes to a poem by the Frost-like poet John Shade — whose work — Pale Fire — has ambiguities of its own.

        But the best comment on Werther is another novel. This is Lotte in Weimar (The Beloved Returns) by Thomas Mann, written in 1939 (English version, 1940). In that, Charlotte Buff confronts Goethe forty years after Werther, on his nasty and unfair treatment of her in that novel. It is both hilarious and very, very astute.

        For those who don’t read German, I think the best English translation is by Burton Fike. (And yes, when, alas, I did time as an Academic for a few years, Werther was one of the novels I taught. 21st Century students LOATHED Werther and Lotte as characters to a person.)

        • Kenneth Conway

          So happy that you bring up Mann’s marvelous “Lotte in Weimar”! Why that novel is not better known is a mystery to me. Further irony (but is it irony?): semi-literate white trash racist mass murder in S.C. seems to have been a fan of Goethe’s great novel and of the peerless (in my mind) symphonist “Heiden” …

          • Wonderful! Also note he listened to German Opera loudly in his car — and then went out and killed those people in cold blood. Hmmmmmmmmm….

          • Camille

            What a shock--I just received the NY Review and picked it up right to this article and thought of this thread--and then found it again posted here.

            Guess we may conclude that in spite of “Werther” committing “suicide”, his long shadow “lives” on.

            For my part, I stayed in a hotel right near that church in Charleston and retain a strong image of the place; it’s very real to me. The thought of what happened there makes me doubt I’ll ever be back at Spoleto U.S.A. again.

  • Ivy Lin

    Oh. I might as well.

    “I find that beneath the surface charm of La Boheme is a sinister story of Rodolfo’s almost psychopathic jealousy and his determination to objectify Mimi as a glorified object of his desire rather than as a flesh and blood woman. The fact that Rodolfo cannot see the error of his ways until Mimi is at death’s door is unnerving and deeply unsettling to modern eyes. I do not feel as if Puccini or the current production of La Boheme fully explore the destructive, sinister undertones of the story.

    It is exactly this unwillingness of directors and singers to confront Rodolfo’s pathological selfishness that I find makes it so difficult for me to connect with this work. And to those who say I’m making a fuss over nothing, I am reminded of the great Italian poet Dante Aligheri, who said, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

    • Armerjacquino

      But Rodolfo’s selfishness is only one interpretation of his actions. Maybe directors and singers aren’t ‘unwilling to confront’ it- maybe they just don’t agree it’s there.

      Regular reminder that characters in any play or opera are words and notes on a page: the reason they behave the way they do is completely up for grabs. Someone could do a TOSCA about this lovely police officer and (crucial caveat) if they can make it work within the words and music of the piece, then that’s perfectly legit. So a selfish Rodolfo who worships an image of Mimi rather than the real person is a really interesting take on the opera that I’d like to see, but it isn’t who he *is*, because nothing is.

      • Ivy Lin

        Omg. I was writing a parody, for chrissakes.

        • Armerjacquino

          Ha! more fool me for not reading the rest of the thread.

          Perfectly plausible reading of the opera, mind. It might be a parody but I don’t see anything wrong with viewing older works through a 21st Century lens. It’s going to happen whether we do it willingly or not, so we might as well embrace it.

          • I agree that we naturally view operas through our own contemporary lens. But I think the question is to what extend we’re going to judge a work based on our modern sensibilities. And at what point is that criticism no longer fair since it depends too much on ways of thinking that have come along after the work was created?

            • Ivy Lin

              I agree. It’s sort of like asking, “Why doesn’t Susanna just sue for sexual harassment?” or “Why can’t Eva marry whomever she wants? Why does Walther have to win a song contest to marry her?”

            • Armerjacquino

              Those questions can be brought into play by productions, though. In a modern-dress FIGARO where the Count is Susanna’s boss, or whatever, it becomes a relevant question.

            • DonCarloFanatic

              And, as always, Carmen remains chillingly relevant without even traducing any of the creators’ original intentions.

            • fletcher

              There was a really great Figaro in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, sung in English and Spanish, where Susanna and Figaro were Mexican immigrants and Almaviva could threaten them with deportation. I can think of nothing more relevant at the moment.

            • I agree that modern-dress productions can often find alternative ways of presenting the plot that speak to modern sensibilities. But it depends on the situation. I think Susanna can behave as a modern woman in a modern-dress production — in the way she interacts with other characters, for example. But a director who tries to insert a charge of sexual harassment into the staging is going to have to have a hell of a time making that work with the exiting words and music.

              So, I think that it’s easier to say that a modern concern is a relevant question in a staging than to demonstrate how it is a relevant question. That relevance can too easily become a tortured exercise.

            • grimoaldo2

              Why does Ernesto in Don Pasquale think he is entitled to his uncle’s money? Why doesn’t he just get a job?