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
are the specific challenges of Werther and, therefore, the criteria
in approaching any recording:-
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.
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.
the long, taxing tenor part requires a complete palette of mood
and expression throughout the range.
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?).
subsidiary roles should draw out sufficient character beyond
their vocally limited parts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
see also Review
by Göran Forsling