At the Saturday matinée, March 15, 2014, the Metropolitan Opera gave its final performance of Jules Massenet’s “Werther,” starring German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as the troubled lad who dies of love. (Technically the cause of death is a self-inflicted pistol shot, but you get the meaning.) He and his costar, French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch in the role of Charlotte—the unrequited love interest—totally owned the stage in all their scenes. When the Act IV curtain fell, the audience roared in wild applause, complete with strictly forbidden confetti showers from the Family Circle Boxes.
The role of Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister and the second-oldest of eight children, and that of Albert, the man Charlotte promises her (deceased) mother she will marry, are the other two principals. Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa and Serbian-Israeli baritone David Bižic interpreted these characters, giving committed performances to their relatively small roles.
The new production by director Richard Eyre, set and costume designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Peter Mumford, and choreographer Sara Erde is a feast for the eyes and a study in 19th-century realism. Not to be overlooked are the thought-provoking, often beautiful projections by video designer Wendall K. Harrington.
Just one example of the latter: During the Act I “Clair de lune” (Moonlight) scene, five elegant couples dressed for a ball danced a gentle waltz. When Werther and Charlotte eventually joined them, the screen at the back of the stage—the ornate wall of a richly furnished ballroom—began “revolving,” emulating the circles being traced by the central couple. The audience saw the walls and the gathered guests floating by. Then, as if the couple leaned back to look upward, the audience glimpsed the ballroom ceiling, its chandeliers, crown mouldings and dome also moving in circles. A clever idea.
Whereas Act I familiarises the audience with Charlotte in her motherly role as eldest sister and shows Werther falling instantly in love with her, Act II basically consists of Werther behaving badly. He has not taken well to Charlotte’s marriage to Albert. Werther asks if she loves her husband, and she obliquely responds that one feels gratitude when in close company with excellent people.
Acts III and IV, on the other hand, are tours de force for Charlotte and Werther, respectively. She scarcely leaves the stage. He has returned at Christmas time, just as she had bidden him. He asks if she missed him, and again she evasively bids him to observe that the room’s furniture is exactly the way it was before. Jonas Kaufmann’s ardent showstopper, “Pourquoi me révellier, ô souffle du printemps?” (Why did you waken me, oh Spring breeze?) detonates a feverishly passionate duet of Charlotte’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to flee from Werther’s grasp. Not since Alfredo Kraus and Tatiana Troyanos has a stage couple generated this much blistering heat.
French-Armenian conductor Alain Altinoglu led the mighty forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a sweeping account of this score, with its nod to Richard Wagner.
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