Jules Massenet: Werther, The Met in HD Encore, Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford, 18 March 2014.
A landmark in German, indeed European, romanticism is Goethe’s 1774 novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). This became a cult among young men, who dressed and behaved like their hero. The story is of Werther’s infatuation with Charlotte, the daughter of a recently widowed Bailiff, who in accordance with her mother’s dying wishes marries her fiancé Albert frequently absent. Werther makes many attempts to woo Charlotte away from her domestic role as carer for her young siblings. She is tempted but Werther is finally rebuffed and commits suicide with a pistol borrowed from Albert who suspects the truth. Werther is buried under a linden tree in the absence of Charlotte, Albert or clergy.
The story of Werther lives on today through the opera of Jules Massenet, one of his finest, composed in 1892. Set in Frankfurt in 1780, it adheres closely to Goethe and does full justice to his invention, although ending with the anti-hero dying in Charlotte’s arms. In turn, the new production at the New York Metropolitan Opera and transmitted live in High Definition to cinemas around the world is a worthy tribute to the composer. Everything comes together under the direction of Richard Eyre – the set design of Rob Howell, the lighting design by Peter Mumford, the video of Wendell K Harrington, choreographer Sara Erde – in support of the cast led by Jonas Kaufmann and Sophia Koch. From the cinema audience special credit is due to the TV direction of Gary Halvorson for striking a perfect balance between viewing the stage scene and intimate views of the performers avoiding obtrusive close-ups. Transferred in time from 1780 to a more modern setting which we can deduce to be sometime before the First World War, the main scenes are set in the comfortable middle-class garden with a bridge over a stream. This sets the scene for the Prologue to introduce us to the Bailiff’s family on the occasion of his wife’s funeral. In Act I Werther arrives to escort Charlotte to a ball during the course of which he falls for her. On return they find Albert, betrothed to Charlotte, returned from service in uniform. Initially remaining friends with the couple, Albert’s suspicions are aroused to the point when he lends his pistols to Werther on Christmas Eve. Werther shoots himself as Charlotte arrives and dies in her arms. As the lights go out, Charlotte is holding the other pistol and the production ends on this ambiguous note, leaving the audience to form its own conclusion.
What makes this production so special, apart from the music, is the direction by the renowned theatre director Richard Eyre. His secret to directing opera was given away in an intermission interview – the music must come first. Few directors take this so seriously but it results in a staging which works with the development of character and plot as represented in the music rather than against it. The close connection in this production gives perfect support to the singing and acting which is of a very high standard. The principal roles are Jonas Kaufmann, Werther, Sophie Koch, Charlotte. .Both belong to the twenty-first century generation of singers where the ability to act to the camera at the same time as projecting to the House audience count as much as the lung power and the associated physique of earlier times. There are few ‘fat ladies’ left and one regrets their passing! Kaufmann must be the outstanding actor/singer of today. His graduated depiction of increasing obsession and the death-scene with Koch were emotionally draining. Koch portrayed Charlotte as an enigmatic character, committed to domesticity but not without a gleam in her eye. One can envisage – heaven forbid – a twenty-first century version of the story in which Werther is arrested for stalking and Charlotte a secret reader of Fifty Shades of Grey. All the characters are thoughtfully depicted. Jonathan Summers as the Bailiff presents the combination of dignity and helplessness of the recently bereaved. Lisette Oropesa as the supportive sister Sophie, David Bižić as the increasingly suspicious Albert (but why was he apparently wearing a British Army uniform?), neighbours and children were all closely observed.
My own view as to how it should end is closer to the nineteenth century summary of Thackeray in the just four stanzas of Sorrows of Werther from which I quote from the first and last: ‘Werther had a love for Charlotte / …. /Would you know how first he met her? / She was cutting bread and butter,’ – ‘Charlotte having seen his body/ ….. /Like a well-conducted person,/ Went on cutting bread and butter.’
The opera was conducted by Alain Altinoglu in a reading which almost convinced us of the superiority of Massenet over his Italian near-contemporary.
26 March 2014