Met’s “Werther” variable yet Sophie Koch proves a Charlotte to die for

Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 12:13 pm
Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch in the Metropolitan Opera production of  Massenet's "Werther." Photo: Ken Howard

Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch in the Metropolitan Opera production of Massenet’s “Werther.” Photo: Ken Howard

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.

Eric C. Simpson is the Hilton Kramer Fellow at The New Criterion.

15 Responses to “Met’s “Werther” variable yet Sophie Koch proves a Charlotte to die for”

  1. Posted Feb 19, 2014 at 6:29 pm by Russell Platt

    The last person to sing Werther at the Met was not Hampson but Roberto Alagna, in 2004, in of course the original tenor version. But the Met didn’t mention that in their program book; why I don’t know.

  2. Posted Feb 20, 2014 at 11:08 am by Ebba

    “His French is far from perfect” ??? French people tell the opposite – immaculate!

  3. Posted Feb 20, 2014 at 2:21 pm by Joe

    Russell — Alagna is mentioned in the program book notes, page 34..”Werther at the Met” …notable performers… include… Kraus, Shicoff, and Roberto Alagna.”

  4. Posted Feb 23, 2014 at 4:38 am by IArrighi

    How can you say that his French is far from perfect. In 2010 when Kaufmann triumphed in Paris as Werther all French people said that his French was perfect.

  5. Posted Mar 04, 2014 at 9:34 am by CastaDiva

    “(Thomas Hampson was in fact the last man to portray Werther at the Met)…”
    Not so. Roberto Alagna sang it in 2004.

  6. Posted Mar 15, 2014 at 2:00 pm by CastaDiva

    I was among the lucky ones who was able to hear the tenor Jean-Francois Borras in the title role of Werther on Mar. 3. I also listened to the radio broadcast of the opera today with Jonas Kaufmann in that role, and my ears tell me that of the two, Borras was much the better. Stocky and barrel-chested (and the baggy coat he was made to wear did not help) he may be, but his top notes were thrilling, and considering the circumstances of his singing at the Met, he did very well. Indeed, his singing was reminiscent of Roberto Alagna’s back in ’04, who was superb in the role. Kaufmann, on the other hand, sounded like a baritone straining to be a tenor.

  7. Posted Mar 15, 2014 at 6:12 pm by Carol Bertozzi

    Oh, I disagree about Jonas Kaufman. I just came from the HD performance and I thought he was completely on top in this emotional portrayal. I didn’t think Sophie is as strong as Jonas–she was very convincing in the first act, but I thought her library scene was a bit unconvincing and stiff-great voice, but the acting is a little bit in need of something . . . not sure what (especially from the letter scene on). The acting follows the music and as the conductor said, the line from the beginning to the end is the challenge–for the singers also. I thought Jonas did absolutely great, and Sophie might need some more work on the second act . . .

  8. Posted Mar 15, 2014 at 6:36 pm by Ann Coombs

    My oh my….. the production was short of extraordinary! Imagine suggesting that Jonas did not do a perfect job in French! ” …. good but not extraordinary…. not saying much about the opera”
    – I have to ask – did you actually attend?
    I clearly saw a different production!

  9. Posted Mar 16, 2014 at 12:53 am by Jérôme

    His French is far from perfect, trust me. Much more intelligible than his Faust, but still far from perfect.

  10. Posted Mar 16, 2014 at 8:07 am by Montcler

    French is my mother tongue: Kaufmann’s French diction was more understandable than Koch’s.
    In reviewing the production, le Monde commented on Kaufmann`s excellent French.
    Werther is the romantic poet ‘par excellence’: one wouldn’t expect him to spend on clothing.

  11. Posted Mar 16, 2014 at 8:13 am by George Simpson

    The premise on which Werther is based is appalling. Imagine a dieing mother extracting a vow from a daughter to marry a man she has not the slightest interest in. I found it hard to overlook this barely acceptable gauchery.

  12. Posted Mar 16, 2014 at 2:43 pm by Stfillon

    I’m French and was lucky enough to see the Saturday broadcast version.
    I personally plainly enjoyed the whole opera and can assure you that Kaufmann is really good at French language. It was really easy as a native speaker to understand the meaning of his words with no necessity of subtitles help. But with the exception of S. Koch and L. Orovesa, it was much more difficult for the other characters. Nevertheless I would not like to be tough with them because French pronunciation is quite difficult generally speaking.
    I eventually wanted to point out box much Werther´s death moved my heart watering my eyes without warning !!!
    Regards from France and thanks to the Met to offer such gorgeous musical shows.

  13. Posted Mar 17, 2014 at 1:58 pm by Nadya

    Saw Werther in HD on Sat. The overall performance was teriffic. I think the people who do not like Jonas Kaufmann are envious of his great voice, acting ability and handsomeness. What if you just sit back and enjoy the performance without all the nit picking. When you watch the opera in HD, because of the closeups, you can see all the anquish and pain in the singers expressions. Thank you Met Opera for the HD performances. I loved it!

  14. Posted Mar 20, 2014 at 11:42 pm by Eleanor J Clark

    I and everyone I spoke with agreed that the French was very good, and the singing and acting on all parts was thrilling and convincing. The whole production very well thought out and realistic, and certainly did NOT miss the violence of Werther’s passion in Act III. Glad to see your proper appreciation of Koch’s work, which was outstanding. Kaufmann did push a bit for his top notes but I thought his sound was perfect for the role. I don’t expect to see it better acted or sung in my lifetime. Saw it three times.

  15. Posted Feb 19, 2017 at 11:21 pm by ROBERT CARADIEN

    Kaufmann and Koch were outstanding, Kaufmann french is perfect.I go nuts with Sophie Koch, each time I listen the video I get very very emotional. The sister has also a very beautiful voice.
    A master piece.

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