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
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
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
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.