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 with English surtitles]
The Bailli – Alain Vernhes
Johann – Darren Jeffrey
Schmidt – Stuart Patterson
Sophie – Eri Nakamura
Charlotte – Sophie Koch
Werther – Rolando Villazón
Brühlmann – ZhengZhong Zhou
Käthchen – Anna Devin
Albert – Audun Iversen
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Benoît Jacquot – Director
Andrew Sinclair – Revival director
Charles Edwards – Set designs
Christian Gasc – Costumes
Charles Edwards – Lighting
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 5 May, 2011
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Before this first-night performance there was a keen sense of anticipation in the house, presumably centred round the return of Rolando Villazón and Sophie Koch – both presenting the respective portrayals of Werther and Charlotte for the first time for The Royal Opera. However, in the memory lingers the stunning orchestral performance under Antonio Pappano of Massenet’s fascinating and evocative score. Pappano really has a way with this composer’s music and its occasional emotional volatility. From the gloomily opening section to its later evocation of the pastoral, this was a reading strong on colour and mood. Particularly fine was the Act One interlude between Albert’s unannounced late-evening return to Wetzlar leading to Werther and Charlotte’s moonlight encounter. The dance gradually coming to a close as evidenced by the gentle strings transformed into that wonderfully transparent evocation of a moonlit night was magical indeed; and the bloom accompanying Werther’s ‘Rêve! Extase!’ was warming and unsettling. No less impressive was the impassioned intense entr’acte that separates the final two acts. The strings and woodwind, especially the soloists, were on fabulous form.
Vocally there was much to admire too. There was a welcome debut from the Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen who sang Albert, managing to make the character almost sympathetic and understandable in his narrow and upright ways, and displaying a lovely mellow yet virile voice – more please!
Of course a performance of Werther stands or falls by its tenor – and Rolando Villazón certainly has many of the attributes needed for the role. His singing was notable for its generally easy sense of line, and also for achieving a sense of the improvisatory in his paean to nature in Act One and desperation in his declaration to God in Act Two. He also managed to summate Werther’s more morbid side in terms of vocal colour as well. However, Werther has a few sudden climactic outbursts and these were not always as thrillingly intense as ideal – the dynamic contrasts are important. It does not always help his dramatic performance that he uses his arms in a rather overtly theatrical way – more restraint would better ally his sung interpretation. His Werther was nicely self-obsessed though displaying a strong tendency to passive-aggressive emotional projection.
Sophie Koch was a good foil as Charlotte – her singing and acting in the first two acts appealing, subtle and expressive. In the third act, perhaps not helped by the production and direction, she perhaps steeped into being the ‘tragedy queen’ a little too early and this lessened the impact of ‘Ces lettres…’ and ‘Va! Laisse couler mes larmes’. The emotional impact of her parting from her sister Sophie did not quite have the shattering dramatic impact it can and which the orchestra tells you it should. She rallied well for the final act and made the lovers’ final encounter poignant but not over-sentimental. Eri Nakamura was a personable if not that individual a Sophie; her younger siblings all seemed to relish their brief moments of carolling, and Alain Vernhes delivered a nice cameo as the Bailli. Light relief was provided by Messrs Jeffrey and Patterson as his drinking partners.
The production does its job well enough, but does not come close to matching the light and shade emanating from the pit. Some of the settings remain a little too stark and monumental, and although nature is evoked it is not always done so lovingly – probably deliberately. The setting for Charlotte and Albert’s house is too Ibsenesque. Curiously the church seemed to have disappeared from the settings of Act Two – a shame as many of the protagonists talk about it and their relationship (or lack of in the case of Schmidt and Johann) with God. Odd too that Werther is seen right at the start wandering around the courtyard of the family home – which makes nonsense of his first sung line. Also some of the humour that is in the piece is very muted – particularly the playful depiction of Brühlmann and Käthchen’s silent mutual infatuation and with the work of Klopstock went for nothing, undermining the fact that three months later they have split up. If you are going to set the work more or less in period then these facets are important. Hats off to Pappano and his orchestra and, overall, a largely satisfying revival.