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Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912)
An Introduction to … Werther

Written by Thomson Smillie. Narrated by David Timson.
Music from the complete recording on Naxos 8.660072-73
Marcus Haddock (tenor) – Werther; Béatrice Uria-Monzon (mezzo) – Charlotte; René Massis (baritone) – Albert; Jaël Azzaretti (soprano) – Sophie; Jean-Philippe Marlière (baritone) – Le Bailli; Jean-Sébastien Bou (baritone) – Johann; Jean Delescluse (tenor) – Schmidt; Mathilde Jacob (soprano) – Käthchen; David Roubaud (tenor) – Brühlmann.
Maîtrise Boréale; Orchestre National de Lille-Région Nord/Pas-de-Calais/Jean-Claude Casadesus.
No information about recording dates and location.
NAXOS 8.558173 [79:24]

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This is the 25th disc in the Naxos "Opera Explained" series and merits some celebration. I do hope that the series will continue, since I strongly believe in this type of education. I have seen some adverse criticism and I now and then hear people stating that music should be listened to without preconceptions or analysis. But how many football fans would bring an uninformed friend to his first match without at least telling him what the idea of football is, what rules there are etc? Thomson Smillie, who has written all these introductions, finds the perfect balance between elitism and being overly explicit. The target-group is people who are unacquainted with the subject but this doesn’t mean that they are fools. On the other hand Smillie is so far-reaching that experienced opera listeners can also harvest new insights. Another asset with the series is the narrator, David Timson, whose conversational tone feels absolutely right.

To begin with we get a short background: to opera in general and then more specifically to French opera, a glimpse of the Italian (!) Lully, who created a French opera style, and then something about 19th century opera, concluded by a survey of the most significant French opera composers of the century, of whom Massenet was the last. And then headlong into Werther, where the starting point of course is Goethe’s novel, based on his own unfortunate love-affair. When we come to Werther’s suicide – Goethe luckily didn’t kill himself but he had a friend who did, so even this is based on real life – Smillie infers that these days Werther would probably have gone to a psychiatrist instead.

The act by act presentation of the plot is illustrated by well-chosen extracts from the complete Naxos recording. Since they are often frustratingly cut short as soon as one gets involved in the music, they invite acquisition of the complete set. However, there are also some longer excerpts, among them the whole Va! Laisse couler mes larmes, Charlotte’s beautiful third act aria. The singing is a little variable. The lion’s share of these snippets is allotted to Marcus Haddock, who has a beautiful lyric-dramatic tenor voice and gives a strong, impassioned reading of the title role. That said, he does sound sorely strained at some of the climaxes. Overall, though, he gives a very positive impression. His Charlotte is Béatrice Uria-Monzon, who is more contralto than mezzo-soprano. She is a good singer but almost too formidable for this part and she definitely sounds much too old for an 18-year-old. This makes the mistake in the cast-list, where she is described as Werther’s daughter, even funnier. Despite this, for her Va! Laisse couler aria she fines her big voice down admirably. Jaël Azzaretti has a typically bright French lyric soprano voice, agile, edgy and somewhat monochrome. Veteran René Massis, the little we hear of him, is quite anonymous and makes Albert sound even more of a stuffed shirt than usual. Jean-Claude Casadesus’s conducting is difficult to assess from these snippets but the orchestra play well, the children’s chorus is good and after the last chord we hear a round of applause, reminding us that this is a live recording.

Recommended. More, Mr Smillie, please!

Göran Forsling

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