Met’s “Werther” variable yet Sophie Koch proves a Charlotte to die for
Massenet’s Werther is a difficult opera to stage at the Met. It is an intimate piece, in its way—the lonesome young poet Werther intrudes into Charlotte and Albert’s otherwise humble story, never meeting any heads of state or hearing of any foreign wars. When his passion finally drives him to suicide, the children under the window defy Charlotte’s lament of “tout est fini!” reminding us that the world will continue right on without him, almost untouched either by his presence or his passing.
Intimacy is a tricky thing to convey in the world’s largest opera house, on one of the world’s largest stages. Richard Eyre’s new production, which opened at the Met on Tuesday with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, wrestles with that challenge, but doesn’t always come out on top.
The third and fourth acts, which approach the problem from opposite sides, are the most successful. Charlotte’s library, where we find her reading Werther’s letters, is big enough to rival that of Alexandria, making her seem a lonely figure in a loveless marriage. For the fourth act, Werther’s dreary apartment is presented in a claustrophobic box suspended at the back of the stage, and as he struggles with his fate during the interlude his cubicle is brought forward until it nests inside the Act Three set.
The first two acts, while mechanically inventive, are largely unimaginative theatrically. Rob Howell’s sets are built on a series of rectangular frames that face front, receding to create a telescopic effect. He has created handsome late nineteenth-century costumes, and picturesque scenes are projected on the back for both acts, a bridge over a woodland stream in the first and a panoramic view overlooking a church in the second. Werther‘s naturalism is driven home by a gigantic tree branch that dominates both sets.
This is all fine as far as the setting goes, but Eyre’s picture frame/telescope/accordion doesn’t really go anywhere. The set twists slightly one way for most of the first act and slightly the other way for all of the second, briefly resting at ninety degrees during an overly busy ball scene. Scenic elements are projected onto it, but aside from that striking Russian-nesting effect between acts three and four, it’s mostly a giant question mark.
What really dooms this production to “good-but-not-extraordinary” status is that it doesn’t say much about the opera. A pair of scenes depicting Charlotte’s mother’s death and funeral during the overture simply spell out what’s already explained in the libretto, shedding no light on Charlotte’s sense of familial duty. Meanwhile, the stage direction glides right past the disturbing quality of Werther’s insistence and Charlotte’s protestations during their encounter in act three, missing an opportunity to confront the violence of his obsession. It doesn’t help that Kaufmann is the only member of the cast to wear the same clothes for all four acts, giving him the air of an unwashed graduate student.
Fortunately, there’s music, too—some of the most expressive that the French operatic tradition produced. Massenet prepared a version of the role for a baritone ten years after the opera’s 1892 premiere (Thomas Hampson was in fact the last man to portray Werther at the Met), and while it is clearly less compelling than the tenor version, something about the more shadowy sound seems fitting for the brooding hero. In a way, Kaufmann offers the best of both worlds, singing with a dark timbre that makes you worry he won’t be able to hit his B-natural—but then he does, miraculously and with authority.
Kaufmann would not be everyone’s first thought for the title role (his status as Earth’s most sought-after tenor aside). His French is far from perfect, and his voice often feels heavy on the part, blasting a lot of the lyricism of the first two acts all the way to Columbus Avenue. There are times, though, when some rafter-shaking is called for, and he delivered in a deliberately paced but emotionally charged “Pourquoi me Reveiller,” drawing cheers that forced the conductor Alain Altinoglu to pause, despite his clear desire to continue with the scene. When Kaufmann really had to tone down the decibels, he did, floating his dying gasps to the roof.
A regular in Paris, London, and Vienna, the French mezzo Sophie Koch is no stranger to the opera world, but she has until now been a stranger to the Met. She was not vocally perfect in her debut on Tuesday—there were catches here and there, and her pitch drifted frequently. Still, her dusky tone—and especially her muscular chest voice—is an excellent weight for the role, and she has no trouble filling the Met’s auditorium with velvet tone.
Koch is also a captivating actress, and she puts all of that dramatic force into her singing. She opens the third act with three of the opera’s most emotionally demanding arias, almost back-to-back-to-back. Her letter scene was poignant and raw, as was her account of “Va! laisse couler mes larmes,” simple and introspective. Koch has the wonderful gift of being able to sing entirely to herself, and yet still project all of her dramatic and musical feeling to the other four thousand-some people in the house.
The scene with her sister Sophie, which comes near the beginning of that act, was memorable, at once heart-warming and heart-rending. Lisette Oropesa is among the Lindemann program’s most promising recent graduates, and to see and hear her as Sophie was an absolute joy. Her beaming smile and sparkling voice lit up the stage every time she came on. She sang with bright, playful innocence throughout, and was wonderfully endearing when she flirted with the gloomy Werther. Comparing laughter to a bird’s flight as she tried to cheer her sister, she fluttered with breathtaking, giggle-inducing coloratura.
In his debut, David Bižić was a noble and caring Albert, singing with a usually round but occasionally bare voice. Jonathan Summers, with an oaky voice and warm demeanor, was a kindly bailiff, and the tenor Tony Stevenson and the bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos were an affable and vocally solid duo as his friends Schmidt and Johann. Christopher Job and Maya Lahyani were suitably adorable as the two young lovers Brühlmann and Kätchen.
Werther is an intimate piece musically as well as dramatically, and Alain Altinoglu was content to take a hands-off approach when required, allowing the orchestral soloists to take the lead. When he needed to control the ensemble with more weight he could do that as well, leading a dark, searing overture, bringing out the nature warbling of the first two acts, and achieving fleshier texture in the gloomier third and fourth acts. He sometimes gave his singers too much leash, allowing an aria or two to slow to a crawl, but for the most part his pacing was taut.
The only choral work in this piece belongs to the kids—and it’s a big job, as their “Noël” chorus bookends the opera. They were more than up to the task, singing with clear voices, tight ensemble, and perfect intonation.
Werther runs through March 15. The final performance will be broadcast Live in HD. Metoperafamily.org
Eric C. Simpson is the Hilton Kramer Fellow at The New Criterion.