Werther – Lyric drama in four acts to a libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet & Georges Hartmann after Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers [sung in French]
Werther – Rolando Villazón
The Bailli – Alain Vernhes
Charlotte – Sophie Koch
Sophie – Eri Nakamura
Albert – Audun Iversen
Johann – Darren Jeffrey
Schmidt – Stuart Patterson
Brühlmann – ZhengZhong Zhou
Käthchen – Anna Devin
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Recorded May 2011 at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
477 9340 (2 CDs)
2 hours 12 minutes
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The great talking-point of this release is sure to be the performance of the protagonist and the vocal condition of the tenor. The gulf between Rolando Villazón’s admirers and detractors is one of the most notable phenomena of contemporary operatic discourse. Breaking through to super-stardom, the tenor soon attracted a large and enthusiastic following, attracted by a voice which throbs with passion, an unusually athletic physique for a tenor and a committed acting style. It was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden that he enjoyed a now-legendary debut as Hoffmann in 2004. Universal soon offered an exclusive recording contract and Villazón’s admirers have turned his stage- and concert-appearances into unquestioning celebrations of their idol.
It was not long, however, before things started to go wrong and a rival faction of Villazón-sceptics emerged, exasperated by this idolatry. For them, anticipation of the revival of Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production of Werther at Covent Garden in Spring 2011 must have been largely negative. The more censorious were likely to be ready to denounce an ill-formed technique exacerbated by poor decision-making, unwise, perhaps greedy career-management and various distractions. Even those sympathetic to the singer will have feared further evidence of promise unfulfilled, of a career having hit the buffers so early in its journey and unlikely to recover.
There would appear to have been good reasons to expect the worst: two spells of inactivity because of what was described as a medical condition, plus cancellations, a fiasco in Copenhagen when the singer abandoned a concert which had only just begun and his cringe-making involvement in the 2010 reality-television series From Popstar to Opera Star. Indeed 2010 had been a bad year for Villazón, with the critical mauling of his Nemorino at La Scala to add to other indignities.
The immediate attraction of Villazón’s voice and its application to the music he sings is the quality of the sound (a mixture of sweetness and tears) and the way he puts the communication of feeling first, above the deployment of a reliable technique. He relies on the emotional, visceral quality of his tone to transmit the meaning of melody and text. His admirers are only too happy to surrender to the seductiveness of this appeal and to ignore technical flaws, a crack here, a strained top note there, so readily are they swept away by the emotional commitment. Unfortunately the belief that a shortcut to emotional communication can be achieved by simply pressing harder on his tone, without making any adjustment to the technical means of vocal production was predicted by some to be the road to perdition and his vocal problems have become obvious, despite attempts to disguise them by cultivating an image of himself as a hero of popular culture. He also bizarrely turned to Handel in 2009, performing and recording a collection of arias. There are few composers whose vocal music demands precision and a sure technique than Handel does.
So Deutsche Grammophon’s investment in a live recording (courtesy of BBC Radio 3) of the Covent Garden performances of Werther in 2011 must have threatened to be an artistic misjudgement and very likely a financial disaster. Yet the critical response to Villazón’s performances as Werther in Nice, then at Paris’s Bastille theatre (2009), should have given cause for guarded optimism, even if he withdrew from the première of the latter and only joined the cast later in the run. There was widespread agreement that this role played to his strengths: the sincerity and intensity of his interpretation were predominant. It should have been no surprise, given the similarities between the two neurotic heroes Hoffmann and Werther, that the halcyon days of Villazón’s surge to prominence should have been recreated. British critics were united in praise of Villazón’s Werther and hailed the revival as a whole as vocally outstanding, Villazón still recognisable as himself and able to portray the Sturm und Drang instability of Massenet’s hero but within a genuinely musical, disciplined interpretation and as part of a stellar cast.
Werther is a grateful role. The fact that it has been successfully sung by singers of such contrasting size of voice as Tito Schipa and Franco Corelli makes it no great surprise that tenors have been keen to add it to their repertoire. Each tenor has an individual method but few lyric-tenors past or present have paid such little attention to cultivating a durable technique as Villazón. On the other hand many interpreters would doubtless be regarded as cool when compared with his spontaneous, uninhibited approach to the music.
And so to this recorded performance. I shall naturally begin with the tenor. Villazón starts well in the ‘Invocation’, coping with the phrases rising through the passaggio in which this number abounds without anxiety. The key-changes are made to reflect the momentum of Werther’s growing euphoria but plenty is held in reserve for later. The gradually but relentlessly rising passage in the ‘moonlight duet’ leading to his explicit declaration of love turns the emotional screw a revolution or two more; earlier in the dialogue with Charlotte he misses some expressive opportunities by not observing Massenet’s markings for piano singing. The ‘Désolation’ in Act Two finds him thrilling in his despair, though narrowly but definitely short of losing control. This is the sort of singing with which Villazón rose to fame. My only complaint is that the text becomes blurred as he presses forward in the passage marked agité et passionné. Then in the duet of Werther’s return in Act Three “Pourquoi me réveiller”, common property among tenors and often just a stand-and-deliver piece, enhances the depth of Werther’s character. It is the recalled words of Ossian which trigger off this lyrical outburst, not the familiar artefacts of Charlotte’s drawing-room. This is the response of a man of literary sensibility. Villazón is as generous here as elsewhere without allowing his tone to coarsen and he rounds off a thoughtful interpretation of a long and taxing role in a concentrated ‘death scene’ which maintains the standard.
The role of Charlotte was written for a soprano but taken over by a mezzo at the Paris premiere. The casting of Sophie Koch for this production suggests a harder, stronger character. Koch’s voice has acquired considerable weight since her early days at Covent Garden in Rossini and Mozart roles. Perhaps it is now too powerful for the Charlotte of the ‘moonlight duet’. Her interpretation is a little pale: Charlotte’s grief at the loss of her mother, preoccupation with familial duties and growing tenderness toward Werther register more in the orchestra than in her singing. The ‘Air des lettres’ is a different story, the dark tragic overtones of the now-mature voice an ideal starting-point for an agonised interpretation. The implied threat of the words in Werther’s last letter, “tu frémiras”, is chilling.
The supporting cast, as one must call it in an opera so dominated by the central pairing, is admirable. I have heard Sophies whose tone have sparkled more than Eri Nakamura’s but equally her lyric soprano offers more depth than her soubrette counterparts. Audun Iversen’s soft-grained baritone is smart casting for Albert and both the Bailiff and the topers contribute to the background entertainment before the action gets really serious.
Villazón’s rejuvenation is no doubt partly (or more) due to the musical leadership of Antonio Pappano. Certainly the Music Director of The Royal Opera shares a clear conception of the hero’s emotional narrative and supports the tenor with finely-balanced orchestral sound at the climaxes. He makes a strong case for a work about which I have had some reservations. From Pappano the score feels like a genuine tragedy.
Alternative recordings of Werther include those with Victoria de los Angeles and Nicolai Gedda from the 1960s and the most idiomatic, the 1931 version with Ninon Vallin, Georges Thill and Germaine Féraldy. On DVD this very production staged in Paris in 2010 with Koch but with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role is available. However, DG has given us a cracking account with Villazón and Pappano and the sound-quality catches the frisson of a live event very successfully indeed.