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Jules MASSENET (1842 - 1912)
Werther (1893) Opera in Four Acts
Libretto: Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Harmann after Goethe
Werther - Marcus Haddock (Tenor)
Charlotte - Béatrice Uria-Monson (Mezzo-Soprano)
Albert - René Massis (Baritone)
Sophie - Jaël Azzaretti (Soprano)
Le Bailli - Jean-Philippe Marlière (Baritone)
Johann - Jean-Sébastien Bou (Baritone)
Schmidt - Jean Delescluse (Tenor)
Käthchen - Mathilde Jacob (Soprano)
Brühlmann - David Roubaud (Tenor)
Maîtrise Boréale
Orchestre National de Lille - Région du Nord/Pas-de-Calais/Jean-Claude Casadesus
Recorded live at the Auditorium du Nouveau Siècle, Lille, France, 19th-25th June, 1999
NAXOS 8.660072-73 [2 CDs: 68.17, 52.07]

Of all Massenet's works, this is the one that is viewed as the most successful by people who have problems acknowledging the power of his more erotic and exotic works like "Manon", "Thais" and "Esclarmonde". These latter two were written at about the same time as "Werther", but as vehicles for the soprano, Sybil Sanderson with whom Massenet was having an affair. "Werther" was also written in the aftermath of a visit to Bayreuth and whilst, at no stretch of the imagination could one call Massenet a Wagnerian, the orchestra in "Werther" has a strong role to play.

French-speaking casts are rare, too often recordings mix and match Spanish, Mexican, German and Russian singers, with fatal results to the sound and feel of the dialogue. Pappano's recent recording for EMI with Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, mixes big names with native French singers and is the only "Werther" in recent years to have a French speaking singer in the title role. (Though having Mrs. Alagna as Charlotte means having a Romanian soprano in the role). For the Lyons Opera recording under Kent Nagano, Erato assembled a fine French cast but added Jerry Hadley, Anne Sofie von Otter and Dawn Upshaw as the principals. The current recording admirably uses a cast of young French singers, the only non-French speaker is the American Marcus Haddock in the title role. In most comparative reviews, the two recordings that come out on top are usually the historic French one with Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin (a soprano) conducted by Elie Cohen, and the live recording from Munich with Placido Domingo and Brigitte Fassbaender conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos. This latter has brilliant on-the-wing passion, but is hardly idiomatically French.

"Werther" was written for a big voice, the first Werther (Ernest Van Dyck) was a Wagnerian tenor and the second (Guillaume Ibos) included Radamès in his repertoire. Listening to Georges Thill shows just what a good sized voice can do when linked to a French technique. On this recording Marcus Haddock has a rather high tension tenor voice that functions best at a pleasant mezzo-forte or a full open-throated forte. It is a not unpleasant sound, and in Italian opera I think it could be very successful. But in French opera, despite his pretty decent French, one misses a sense of control and more of a sense of line. From the very beginning he sounds over-emotional, so by the time we reach his cry "Un autre est son époux" at the end of Act 2, there seems to be nowhere for Haddock to go as he sounds over-wrought already.

Béatrice Uria-Monson as Charlotte has the tricky task of maturing and developing her character as the opera progresses. Without any visual support to aid characterisation, she must rely on her voice to suggest the young, rather naïve Charlotte of the opening. Unfortunately she has a rather rich, darkish, warm vibrato-laden voice, which probably sounds good in "Carmen". But in Acts I and II of "Werther" she sounds far too mature and sensible. For English audiences in particular, Charlotte must work hard to banish Thackeray's satirical poem, with its image of Charlotte just cutting bread and butter. Béatrice Uria-Monson sounds too much like Sophie's mother, particularly when contrasted with the attractive bright voice of Jaël Azzaretti 's Sophie.

By the time the drama develops in Acts III and IV, the voices of Béatrice Uria-Monson and Marcus Haddock come into their own rather more. She has the right sound for the mature Charlotte and he has good right to sound completely overwrought (the surprise is more that he has not committed suicide earlier). I felt that Béatrice Uria-Monson never quite matches Marcus Haddock's emotionalism. Listening to the opening of Act III, her long solo comes as a disappointment after the dramatic prelude. She makes Charlotte sound too four-square and earth bound, I miss suppleness and freedom.

Just listen to Ninon Vallin, her focus and attention to detail, the shapeliness of her line; these all give a inwardness to the music that is heartbreaking. Granted she does sound a little light voiced and is put under pressure, but there are few Charlottes to match her. Continuing to Werther's first entry in Act III, Thill manages to convey so much with so little by his sheer attention to detail in his first phrase - "Oui!, c'est moi! je reviens! et pourtant…". Again, Thill's dry voice will not be to everyone's taste, very French in voice production and sound, it is a voice type that has all but died out.

Turning to one of the more modern recordings with Ramon Vargas, Vesselina Kassarova conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, both the principals sing with decent French and both impress with their subtle and supple approach to the music. Given luxuriant support by Jurowski and the Berlin Deutsches Symphony Orchestra, they really do get carried away by passion without compromising the musical or their sense of line. Whereas on the new recording both Béatrice Uria-Monson and Marcus Haddock also seem to mistake volume and vibrato for emotion so that the climaxes are impressive, but Charlotte and Werther never quite sound carried away by passion and much subtlety is lost.

Passion is an important key to this opera. Acts III and IV are wholly dependent on Charlotte and Werther and their developing passion. If they are not completely carried away then neither is the audience. The story only works if we believe in the would-be lover's passion, otherwise in today's world the sheer mechanics of the story can just seem ridiculous.

René Massis as Albert sounds a bit of a stick he has a fine technique and a slightly dry, very French-sounding baritone voice. Which is all very fine, but in his Act 1 arioso, "Elle m'aime", all the emotion is in the orchestra, René Massis sounds unmoved. As Le Bailli, Jean-Philippe Marlière makes an excellent impression and one could wish to hear him in something more substantial. He certainly does not sound like Béatrice Uria-Monson's father, more her brother.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves creditably. Having a mainly French speaking cast is a big advantage in Acts I and II where the drama is at its weakest. Only in Act III does the opera really seem to take wing and by this time the subsidiary cast are redundant. But in Acts I and II they can make a big difference as they do here.

The clumsily named Orchestre National de Lille-Région du Nord/Pas-de-Calais inevitably lack the amplitude and flexibility of some of the more well-known orchestras. The orchestra is important in "Werther" and not everyone will like their rather wiry sound. They are well directed by Jean-Claude Casadesus, though there were moments when I wished that he would let the drama get more carried away with itself.

Recordings vary enormously as to the duration of the acts. For Acts I and II Plasson takes nearly 8 minutes longer than the current recording, which is in fast the swiftest in the catalogue for these two acts (Elie Cohen is in the middle and takes some 4 minutes longer than Plasson and Kent Nagano takes just 2 minutes more.). Besides the temperament of the conductor, some of this difference is probably due to the speed that the cast can take the dialogue - a lot of the sub-principals are French speaking on the current recording and on Kent Nagano's, which helps. When it comes to Acts III and IV, mainly dependent on the principals, the scene changes. Cohen is swiftest with 49'03 (reflecting the suppleness, flexibility and intensity that Thill and Vallin bring to the roles) and Plasson slowest, a whole 13 minutes longer. Kent Nagano takes 5 minutes more than Cohen and the current recording 4 minutes more.

This is not a library shelf recording. It would be a good place to start if you wanted to explore Massenet's lovely opera. If you know the opera already and your library choice has one of the modern mongrel casts then this recording with its French speaking ensemble, it makes a lovely antidote. Perhaps, one day, the major French ensembles will take note of the opera and give us a modern recording to match the historic one with Thill and Vallin, but until then we must be grateful to Jean-Claude Casadesus for giving us this one.

Robert Hugill

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