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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
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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]

 

 

I might be in the minority, but it is my opinion that Massenet in general and Werther in particular is far from easy to bring off with total success in the theatre. However under the right conditions and with suitable forces many of the challenges can be overcome, as proved by the production at Covent Garden earlier this season. The same goes for recordings, and there are many complete versions to choose from. Any newcomer faces extremely stiff competition on all fronts from many existing recordings. So to impress at anything beyond surface level a new recording will have to be something special.

What are the specific challenges of Werther and, therefore, the criteria in approaching any recording:-

1. scaling and balance within the orchestral playing: the beauty of Massenet’s orchestration is to be found in the winds set as against the strings.

2. allied to this is the sympathy of the conductor to the true French idiom – a generic sound or approach will not do, nor will a lack of dynamism in the production as a whole.

3. the long, taxing tenor part requires a complete palette of mood and expression throughout the range.

4. the balancing of the female leads (do you balance Sophie, a soprano role, with a mezzo Charlotte or another soprano – and if so of what vocal size and timbre, so they are distinct?).

5. subsidiary roles should draw out sufficient character beyond their vocally limited parts.

The essential point with orchestral scaling and balance within Werther is that it matches the onstage drama, which is to say that it is essentially domestic in scale, although larger emotions are contained within that setting. Yves Abel leads a reading that is large in structure, meaty in tone and, therefore, neglects the essence of the drama. Winds, although prominent, do not take on character in the way they might under a more insightful conductor. To my ears at least the orchestra is not sufficiently in the French vein, being too heavy and forward.

So to Werther himself. Bocelli’s tone comes across as firm with a slight vibrato throughout. The text is by and large decently delivered – there are some problems in faster passages (this applies to all the singers on this set), higher vocal range can appear strained too, but importantly depth of character seems largely absent. I could perhaps live with all the former more if depth of character was present in spadefulls.  Here interplay with the conductor’s bland interpretation must be mentioned – it hardly inspires depth of character or emotion in what is a setting of one of Goethe’s most emotional narratives.

My major concern about Bocelli’s voice is its size and its true dynamic range.  I said earlier the voice ‘comes across’- because here I question the recording of it rather than the voice itself – there is virtually no scaling down from a uniform mezzo-forte. Brief fortissimi are delivered, but not with the greatest comfort. Listen to virtually any other tenor in performance or recording and you get true dynamic range, appropriate (hopefully) to the mood of the moment. Massenet is careful about his indications, so why for large parts of the work, ignore them? My only conclusion is that no matter how much recording hocus-pocus is used to cover the fact, Bocelli may be a tenor trying on a role that is a size too large for him. As this is his fourth complete opera recording with large demanding roles, an artistic path seems set. The recording followed a production with this cast at the Teatro Comunale, Bologna in 2004. Quite how he coped with the role on stage I cannot say. If he wants to keep a voice in the long term, I hope he knows best, and I say no more.

Julia Gertseva, a St Petersburg-born mezzo, is a singer making a name for herself apparently. I say apparently because no notes are included on the singers, so I resorted to the internet to find out something. Where other Charlottes (Gheorghiu and de los Angeles in particular) are more girlish, Gertseva is at times a touch matronly. For a character that is so emotionally immersed in the action, she seems curiously detached from it all. Act III scene 1 is Charlotte’s solo scene, loaded with emotion as she pours out her feelings for Werther: Gertseva delivers it as if anything but this, albeit with technical accuracy. Again, balance against the orchestra does her few favours in places. I would cast a mezzo of smaller scale than Gertseva in the role, but that is my preference, although my preferred versions listed below all have sopranos as Charlotte.

Regarding subsidiary parts, Magali Leger as Sophie is characterful, but not to match others on disc. Others are adequate, though in truth Massenet gives them precious little of substance to work with.

I started by mentioning the recent Covent Garden production. From this recording I get little sense of ‘a production’, with emotional involvement from all concerned. Pappano’s recording is positively full of it, despite not having followed a production – a result no doubt of his infectious love of this work connecting with the orchestra and soloists. This version exists primarily to satisfy Bocelli’s fanbase, and document the accent of Gertseva in the opera world. But as a Werther to set beside the best it is wanting on many counts, averagely to decently sung and played though it is. Prime recommendations must remain Pappano or Prêtre, depending on your casting of Charlotte, (both on EMI), with the live recording featuring Kraus and Zeani forming a supplement to that choice.

It is some, perhaps small, consolation for singers recording the role that the commercial recording with Kraus caught him slightly too late to be vocally comfortable with all aspects when heard against earlier live assumptions. But Kraus is still a well-nigh impossible benchmark to match. The innate understanding of the role, the sense of style both in man and music are there. Indeed these elements were there until the very end of his life, as I heard at his last UK orchestral concert at the Barbican - the whole evening built inexorably towards a rendition of ‘Pourquoi me reveiller…?’ – given straight, no star tenor histrionics, no distortion of the vocal line. 

An ideal Werther?  Mix together Pappano conducting an orchestra with whom he has a long-standing association, Alfredo Kraus (c.1979) as Werther, Vesselina Kasarova or Ruxandra Donose as Charlotte, Patricia Petibon or Sally Matthews as Sophie and you have the main ingredients for a real night at the opera. Alas, only in my dreams; a sentiment Werther himself could well agree with.

Evan Dickerson

see also Review by Göran Forsling

 

 

 



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