“Have you seen Werther before?” the white-haired lady in the seat next to me at Saturday’s HD from the MET broadcast. “Indeed, I have,” I replied enthusiastically. I have seen some of the greats in recent memory: Franco Corelli, who was a sheer force of nature in his ardor, Jerry Hadley, whose bright squillo and sweetness brought ineffable pathos, and now Jonas Kaufmann.
Kaufmann, whose voice and technique are a marvel for their agility, range, versatility, and power, is something of a renascence singer. These vocal gifts, together with his intelligence and riveting dramatic presence, make his supremely at home in modern opera’s cinematic aesthetic. Already acclaimed for his portrayal of Werther at the Paris Opera, he comes to the MET’s new staging by Richard Eyre with a firm grip on the vocal and dramatic requirements of the part. His Werther is a brooding, passionate, manically unstable young anti-hero, whose fatal attraction for Charlotte is less the stuff of romantic novels and more a subject for Freud. Looking like an alluringly crazed Byron or Shelley (Eyre’s production is set in the 19th century), Kaufmann moves with cat-like grace and registers all the psychological subtleties of the part for the camera with consummate ease. In voice and stage presence he incarnates the fatal melancholy, so seductive and so dangerous, which permeates late Romantic Massenet’s score.
So commanding and seamless is his stage performance that it is almost possible to forget this is an opera – and one with a very demanding tenor role, at that! Kaufmann’s dusky timbre and powerful middle register give substance to his sound and a firm foundation for his thrilling, open, ringing top. Moreover, he is in complete command of the mezza voce and well-supported pianissimi, as well as a glorious sense of legato and phrasing and a mastery of French diction and style.
He is ably partnered by French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch. Hers is a rich and sizeable voice which rises grandly to the demands of the third and fourth acts. Lisette Oropesa is a sweet and lyrical Sophie with David Bižić a strong and more menacing-than-usual Albert.
Alain Altinoglu lovingly conducts Massenet’s lush score, creating a chiaroscuro of light and dark melodies and pacing the tempi to underscore both the lassitude and pulsating passion of the drama.
Richard Eyre’s staging chooses to set the work in the 19th century, and to focus on the interiority of his characters, their emotions mirrored by the Romantic natural world around them. He uses the prelude and interludes for mimed narrative: the prelude for Charlotte’s mother’s death; the Act 1-2 interlude for the dance; the Act 3-4 interlude for Werther’s shooting himself (for which there is precedent in earlier productions such as the Hadley one with NYCO). Though occasionally too literal (as in the prelude), for the most part, this device does work by moving the drama forward with a relentless force. He elicits from all his actors stage-worthy performances of naturalistic detail.
Rob Howell’s sets and costumes work remarkably well in reducing the cavernous MET stage to the more intimate proportions needed for Massenet’s domestic drama. Creating a series of frames within frames which recede with an asymmetrical, almost expressionistic perspective serves to draw the audience not only visually, but also emotionally into the heart of the drama. Wendall K. Harrington’s video design and projections superimposed on the scenery evokes a surreal sense of flux, helping to propel the action and vividly capture the tumultuous moods of Nature and the protagonists. Peter Mumford’s lighting design is complementary in its dark moodiness and ability to isolate areas of the stage, so that the final death scene plays itself out in an elevated, contracted rectangle of dim, bluish light at the rear of the stage.
The overall effect of this Werther demonstrates the best of the theatrical and musical values of the current MET. It is a production worthy to be embraced on any stage, operatic or otherwise, and its stars, Kaufmann and Koch, in particular, reinforce the ideals of modern music drama.