Met’s New ‘Werther’ Strikingly Updated, Splendidly Sung

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Werther (Jonas Kaufmann) pines for Charlotte (Sophie Koch), but she is bethrothed to Albert.  (Production photos by Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera)
The poet Werther (Jonas Kaufmann) is smitten with Charlotte (Sophie Koch), but she is bethrothed to Albert.
(Production photos by Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera)
By George Loomis

NEW YORK – Ever since its 1971 production with Christa Ludwig and Franco Corelli, Werther has been the most frequently performed Massenet opera at the Metropolitan Opera. But, as with any production, familiarity brings the need for renewal, and so on Feb. 18 the company introduced a new production which updates the action from the late 18th century to Massenet’s time. Happily, in Sophie Koch and Jonas Kaufmann, it also has a stellar pair of singers as the central couple.  

Charlotte with her younger sister, Sophie (Lisette Oropesa).
Charlotte with her younger sister, Sophie (Lisette Oropesa).

The production by Richard Eyre is likely to engender audience pleasure as well, and in fact it did so on opening night. With sets and costumes by Rob Howell, interestingly lighted by Peter Mumford, this new Werther  is emphatically not a case of drab modernism replacing picturesque tradition. Especially striking, and a little perplexing, are huge rectangular frames, arranged in a kind of skewed concentric way in Act I. It is hard to know just what they are supposed to represent, but they undergo striking transformation to represent briefly the ball that Werther and Charlotte attend on their first (and apparently only) date, something normally left to the viewer’s imagination. (From the prior production, you might have thought they just went for a stroll in the woods.)

Acts I and II make extensive use of projections – Wendall Harrington is the video director – to suggest the Bailiff’s house and the natural beauty of its surroundings, as extolled by Werther in his first aria. Also captured are the autumnal colors of the Act II church scene, with its linden trees. The indoor scenes of the final two acts, dominated by tall and imposing library stacks in Albert’s house, largely do away with projections, as if it were feared that they might detract from the impending tragedy.

Jonas Kaufmann plays the brooding, lovesick title character.
Jonas Kaufmann plays the brooding, lovesick title character.

Clearly, the Met administration, encouraged by his successful Carmen from a few years back, has confidence in Eyre, who will also direct a new Marriage of Figaro to open the 2014-15 season.

But anyone expecting a bold, cutting-edge take on Massenet’s operatic tale  — derived from Goethe — of true love thwarted by circumstance will have to look elsewhere.

Nor does this new account begin promisingly. During the prelude, a pantomime enacts the death of the mother of Charlotte and her siblings, as well as her funeral, conveying in the process the family’s grief. (At some point, Charlotte emits a cry, and accordingly, the program booklet, which lists characters in order of vocal appearance, mentions her name first.) Massenet’s operas have enough sentimentality as it is without this sort of thing.

Otherwise, Eyre’s direction, skillful and to the point, is free of comparable add-ons, although I could have done with more creative details. Some moments remain etched in the memory, as when Charlotte stands frozen at the front of the stage, while her husband, Albert, prepares to furnish the pistols Werther requested. Werther’s demise in Charlotte’s loving embrace is especially bloody. And as with Carmen, which ends with a start when the stage rotates to reveal a dead bull following Carmen’s own murder, the final moment brings a shock about Charlotte’s possible fate.

Werther pleads with Charlotte to return his love.
Werther pleads with Charlotte to return his love.

Opinions will differ about the repertoire that suits Kaufmann best – my predilection is for lyrical Wagner – yet most of us wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hear him in anything. His Werther is not particularly French-oriented, but this is one of those roles that transcend niceties of style because of the powerful emotions in need of expression. Kaufmann’s dark but clarion tone conveys them thrillingly at full volume and touchingly at tender moments. There was a bit of awkwardness in dynamic shifts in his first aria, but the expression of his initial thoughts about suicide in Act II brings some compelling soft singing, and his “Pourquoi me réveiller” builds arrestingly from slender tone to full volume in both verses.

Charlotte was originally to have been sung by Elīna Garanča, but she withdrew because of pregnancy (her second child, a girl, was born last month). But there will be no tears shed over her replacement, Koch, who here makes an important Met debut. Don’t be misled by her name: she was born in Versailles and is one of today’s finest female French singers. Her bright, radiant tone and fine diction are a pleasure to encounter.  Her big scene in Act III, beginning with her anguished perusal of Werther’s letters, develops steadily through the saxophone-accompanied middle section, with its passionate first cry about giving way to tears being especially stirring, and on to the vigorous cabaletta-like close, excitingly sung. Koch is poignant in the final scene, both in recognizing the error of her fateful marital choice and in bringing comfort to the dying Werther.

A distraught Charlotte with her husband, Albert (David Bižić).
A distraught Charlotte with her husband, Albert (David Bižić).

Lisette Oropesa, who most recently sang Nannetta in Falstaff, is apparently the Met’s current soubrette soprano of choice, and she chirps merrily as Charlotte’s irrepressible sister Sophie. The Serbian baritone David Bižić, who makes his Met debut as Albert, sings with an impressive, richly textured voice, but this is never a character who wins much audience sympathy. On the other hand, the likable Bailiff is one who can, and Jonathan Summers sings it well. Philip Cokorinos and Tony Stevenson portray the tiresome oenophiles, Johann and Schmidt.

Also in the plus column is the young French conductor Alain Altinoglu. Werther is an opera about youthful passion, and it seems fitting that its musical direction should be informed by youth, especially given the enthusiasm and aptitude for precision Altinoglu brings to the task. He also ensures fine balances between voices and instruments. This Werther is well worth a visit.

The production runs through March 15. For details, click here.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.