Love and Death permeate late-19th-century Romantic Opera – from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to Verdi’s Otello – in the French repertoire, few stage-works focus on this duality as strongly as Massenet’s Werther (1892), based upon Goethe’s short but steamy novel, which caused quite a sensation when it appeared more than one-hundred years earlier. It’s the heartrending tale of the unattainable love of a young poet for a married woman (Charlotte) that ends in his suicide, an archetype of the brilliant but doomed artist whose dissatisfaction with the world results in a tragic end.
Three years ago Richard Eyre staged Werther for the Met in a basically traditional manner and with cinematography to suggest the change of seasons from midsummer heat to colorful autumn and snowy winter. Even more impressive is how the décor of the ballroom whirls about as Werther and Charlotte join the dancers to celebrate the anniversary of the Pastor’s marriage. Eyre’s penchant for explication results in his fashioning a pantomime during the opening, describing the death of the children’s mother, and the rather lurid suicide of Werther during the entr’acte before Act Four (which is sufficiently suggested by Werther’s blood-stained shirt as he awaits death at the beginning of that Act). Otherwise, the staging is quite effective, avoiding symbolism and other distractions.
Massenet’s idiom does not lend itself to heart-on-sleeve emotions. Thus the music can seem restrained in the face of Werther’s fervent passion and Charlotte’s realization – all too late – that she made a mistake in marrying Albert.
Vittorio Grigolo and Isabel Leonard conveyed their encounters with increasingly intense passion. His portrayal of Werther ranged from frenzied outbursts to uncontrollable lust to sorrowful resignation. Grigolo has a fine if not particularly colorful voice, which is not always secure at the outermost limits of his range; but he can manage sufficient power when necessary. Grigolo impressed more with his acting skills although he sang Werther’s meditation on the tragedy of love with enthusiastic expression. Leonard transformed her initial reserve into deeply-felt outbursts as she finally admitted her love for Werther as he lay on his deathbed, although her rather moderate vocal power caused forced and slightly shrill sounds at full voice. She gave a stirring of the Letter Scene of Act Three, when she reads correspondence from Werther who has departed in a desperate attempt to try to forget his beloved.
Anna Christy played a perky and playful Sophie (Charlotte’s sister); David Bizic, though slightly wooden in his portrayal of Albert as a military man (if not in Goethe’s story), performed admirably, as did the delightfully light-hearted Maurizio Muraro as The Bailiff. Philip Cokorinos and Tony Stevenson, as the Bailiff’s friends, added to the merriment of the anniversary party.
Edward Gardner led a strong, taut and sometimes riveting performance; he knows just when to keep the orchestra in proper balance with the singers and when to let it loose to enhance a dramatic moment. This Werther could well become a staple in the Met’s repertory.