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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Werther (1892)
Andrea Bocelli (tenor) – Werther; Natale de Carolis (baritone) – Albert; Giorgio Giuseppini (baritone) – The Bailiff; Julia Gertseva (mezzo-soprano) – Charlotte; Magali Léger (soprano) – Sophie; Pierre Lefebvre (tenor) – Schmidt); Armando Ariostini (bass) – Johann; Diana Bertini (soprano) – Kätchen; Vittorio Prato (tenor) – Bruhlmann;
Coro di voci bianche del Teatro Communale di Bologna, Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Yves Abel
Recorded in the Teatro Manzoni, Bologna, 30 January – 5 February 2004, following live performances at the Teatro Comunale
DECCA 475 6557 [73:06 + 56:33]

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Today the big companies have more or less ceased recording complete operas. We have to be grateful then for the few star singers who are regarded as being such safe sellers that complete recordings will command good sales figures.

The main selling point for this new Werther is, of course, Andrea Bocelli. It is comforting that so many buyers seem to listen to opera, not only on recital discs, that Decca see it as profitable enough to release even a relative rarity like Werther. Hopefully Bocelli’s admirers will want more, even if he isn’t the main attraction. His qualities as a singer have been debated intensely during the last few years and they have divided opinions, to say the least. Coming from the popular camp he wasn’t always regarded as “clean” by some commentators and even Giuseppe Di Stefano was openly critical of Bocelli singing Bohème on stage.

I haven’t heard much of him, I have to admit: one or two opera arias which left me in two minds and some cross-over material that was decidedly poor. But last year I heard an excerpt from the complete Il trovatore on a sampler and his singing of Ah si ben mio really made me sit up. Here was a singer with a good ring to his voice but also the ability – and willingness – to sing softly. His treatment of that warhorse put several big names to shame. So it was with some anticipation that I received this new set. I was not disappointed.

His voice is obviously not very big but at least there is nothing here that indicates that he was recorded more closely than the other singers; a factor commented upon in reviews of some other operas. And Bocelli’s is certainly a beautiful voice. It reminds me of the young Pavarotti: the timbre is similar although he doesn’t have the older singer’s ease at the top. A recording of A te, o cara from I puritani, some years ago, showed him fighting a losing battle with the top notes, where Pavarotti sailed effortlessly up into the stratosphere. While Pavarotti in the 1970s and 1980s gradually became more careless about note values and even voice production, Bocelli has obviously gone in the opposite direction. His voice has filled out and the shrillness that was apparent in some of those early recordings is more or less gone. What is instead characteristic of his singing is the warmth and the ability to shade and colour the voice. He can sing ravishing pianissimos without a hint of falsetto, witnessed in Mais, comme après l’orage (CD 1 end of track 14). He is also capable of good heroic singing; the second act aria J’aurais sur ma poitrine is a fine example (CD 1 track 13). Just occasionally he resorts to shouting at fortissimos (CD 1 track 17) but that is a rare exception. What is, on the other hand, obvious is the surprisingly full and baritonal sound in the lower range of his voice, something that contributes to the feeling of warmth. Listen to Ah! qu’il est loin ce jour plein (CD 1 track 16). I have deliberately avoided making comparisons with tenors from the past and not so distant past. There are, of course, masterly interpretations of this part from, say, Gedda, Kraus and Domingo, not to forget the 70+  years old recording with Georges Thill. However, taken on its own, Bocelli’s assumption of the part is definitely worthy of that illustrious company.

None of the other singers is quite up to Bocelli’s level, even if they all have their merits. Every performance of this great opera, whether on disc or in the theatre, stands or falls with the two main characters, but it helps to have a good Albert and Sophie. The Albert here is Natale di Carolis, the only singer in this recording, apart from Bocelli, that I knew from before. His is a good voice with a characteristic rapid vibrato in fortes - not unattractive – and he is careful about phrasing. Sophie is sung by Magali Léger. She is a typical French lyric soprano, very much in the mould of Mady Mesplé, light and slightly fluttery. Giorgio Giuseppini, here singing the Bailiff’s brief part, has vocal qualities that would be interesting to hear exploited in something more important. His is a sonorous and expressive voice and his two friends, Schmidt and Johann, are ably acted by Pierre Lefebvre and Armando Ariostini.

Charlotte, one of the truly great female parts in French opera, is here entrusted to the young Russian mezzo-soprano Julia Gertseva. She has a fine voice of not inconsiderable size and she can be thrilling when she opens up in fortissimos. She can also scale down the voice and sing a ravishing pianissimo. Listen to her on CD 2 track 2 from 5:25, where she is deeply involved in Charlotte’s predicament. On the debit side there is a prominent vibrato (yes, I know, vibrato has become my hang-up and I know that different listeners react differently to this) whenever she sings above mezzoforte. Also there is a sameness to her voice colour, whether she is happy or sad. Still, in crucial situations, she rises admirably to the requirements and she is at her best in the third act aria Va! Laisse couler mes larmes (CD 2 track 4).

Yves Abel avoids the “sentimentality trap” that some Massenet conductors fall into. He lets the doom-laden drama unfold with inescapable consistency, tempos being generally well judged. The whole performance feels very much of a piece, the result no doubt of being recorded directly after the live performances. I don’t know if the music was recorded in the order it is presented here, but it seems plausible, considering the ensemble was so ‘into’ the drama. Indeed I think that this is the best compromise in the eternal debate about live vs studio recording. Here you get the best of two worlds.

The booklet gives the full text with English translations and a three language essay by Arthur Holmberg entitled “Werther: Tears and Laughter”, dealing mainly with Goethe’s novel and to some extent the differences between the novel and the libretto. It wouldn’t have come amiss to give a few words about the singers, though.

The verdict: this issue may not shake the hierarchy of existing recordings (Prêtre, Plasson, Colin Davis, Pappano and the historical Cohen) but it is a good one and, in the case of Bocelli, an excellent one. Bocelli fans should not hesitate of course, but others should give it a chance too.

Göran Forsling




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