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.
Mr Smillie, please!