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.