Opera a rare artistic trump card

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TO Werther

WERTHER

STAGE DIRECTOR: Richard Eyre

CONDUCTOR: Alain Altinoglu

CAST: Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, Lisette Oropesa, David Bizic, Jonathan Summers

SET & COSTUME DESIGN: |Rob Howell

LIGHTING DESIGN: Peter Mumford

to werther3

VIDEO DESIGN: Wendall Harrington

CHOREOGRAPHER: Sara Erde

RATING: *****

Jules Massenet’s opera Werther is arguably the Frenchman’s masterpiece. It’s all the more stirring in this new Metropolitan Opera production.

Dramatically, the renowned British theatrical magician Sir Richard Eyre – a director working in multi-disciplines – solidly focuses on interpersonal relationships in this discreet love story layered with semi-religious eroticism and forlorn hope.

Having seen a staging of it in the Royal Opera House, London, in 1987 and experiencing it now on HD film, firmly confirms that it is musically and dramatically more rewarding than Manon or any of Massenet’s other operas.

The sorrows of the poor, clingy poet Werther may not evoke an instant response from an age not much taken with such romantic fables, but Massenet believed in Goethe’s hero and heroine and gives them both, plus the orchestra, music surging with passion, with tender and brooding attributes. In other words: the agony is every bit as enjoyable as the ecstasy.

Because of the phonetic richness of the French language, it offers any international cast great opportunities to discover new sounds and voice colourings. Here the cast as a whole succeed to be very respectful to the French style, to the delicately judged shape of the vocal lines, without ever taking the fire out of the music.

In this regard the French-Armenian Alain Altinoglu conducts a sensitive, warmly expressive but also sharply characterful performance.

He also knows how to thrust home an important climax, as well as creating evocative textures and varying tensions positively. His fearless and nuanced leadership demonstrated how effectively Massenet tells Goethe’s story in musical terms.

The crowning glory of this Werther is above all else focused on the singing. After many performances of the title role in international opera houses, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is now fully under the poet’s skin.

Combining vocal purity, controlled sweetness and strength, his portrayal of the desperate, lovelorn personality flows naturally from these qualities as well as his obedience to the composer’s numerous markings.

The tenor’s showstopper, Pourquoi Me Révellier, ô Soufflé du Printemps? (Why wake me, Spring?) was the most heart-rending vocal contribution to this staging.

It also detonates the duet that follows with Charlotte (the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch) in which she tries to flee from Werther’s hold on her. Both in Acts 3 and 4 their vocal interactions hardly have a parallel in previous sound or video recordings of this work.

Koch might look a bit old for the part, but her warm and attractive vocal contribution is dramatically seconded by Charlotte’s conflicting emotions which she conveys in her body language and expressions. She rises with splendour to the many demands of Act 3 (three arias in a row!), building up a wealth of inner tension before Werther suddenly reappears.

The Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa sings the role of Charlotte’s younger sister, Sophie, with great charm and insight.

Her clear soubrette voice has a solid core. As Alfred, Charlotte’s military husband with a conventional stuffy rectitude, the Serbian-Israeli bass provides us with an impressive Met debut performance.

Jonathan Summers as the Bailiff, Charlotte’s father, opens the opera confidently.

Design and choreography enhanced the visual aspects of this Werther spectacularly, especially Wandall Harrington’s video design during the Clair de lune (Moonlight) scene of Act 1 which is magical.

A backdrop starts revolving during a ball scene, following and emulating the dancing couples.

The claustrophobic final scene – the tiny room which is slowly shifted forward to centre stage and from which the poet escapes through suicide – was a clever touch in a production filled with many of them.

• Screening at all Cinema Nouveau and selected Ster-Kinekor theatres.

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