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Faure songs
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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Werther (1892)
Marcelo Álvarez (tenor) - Werther
Elina Garanča (soprano) - Charlotte

Adrian Eröd (baritone) - Albert
Ileana Tonca (soprano) - Sophie
Peter Jelosits (tenor) - Schmidt
Alfred Šramek (baritone) - Le Bailli
Clemens Unterreiner (tenor) - Bühlmann
Markus Pelz (bass) - Johann
Maria Gusenleitner (soprano) - Käthchen
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper / Philippe Jordan
Recorded at Vienna State Opera, 25 and 28 February 2005. DVD Region 0.
Bonus: Prior to Opening Night - Marcelo Álvarez and Elina Garanča, Vienna Opera Ball
TDK DVD DVWW-OPWER [132’00" + 12’00" bonus]


Back in May 2005, I reviewed the CD release of this opera featuring Andrea Bocelli. My colleague Göran Forsling was rather more positive about it than me [review], and urged potential purchasers to give it a chance. In that review I outlined the five areas that it seems to me any production of Werther should seek to address musically, and I still stick to those. In making these comments I refer back to Pappano’s conducting of the score at Covent Garden last season. This production measures up as follows.

1. Scaling and balance within the orchestral playing: the beauty of Massenet’s orchestration is to be found in the winds set against the strings: The orchestra is recorded with full enough tone, and in such a way as to favour the strings over the winds – much to the detriment of the work as a whole in my view, as in the winds lies much of Massenet’s compositional inventiveness. This is not to suggest that the woodwind are absent from things, just that they do not quite have the presence that they might. Pappano’s reading placed much greater interest on the winds as a whole. Regarding the scaling of the orchestral performance, this is an important factor with this work as it should reflect the domestic nature of the setting. This is perhaps captured being slightly on the large side of intimate, but given that the Wiener Staatsoper – the house where the work was premiered – is hardly of compact proportions such projection and scaling of playing is acceptable.

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:

Philippe Jordan’s reading I would say is not wholly in the French idiom – though this brought to mind an interesting fact about Massenet and the composition of Werther. Just prior to the composition of the opera, Massenet – like so many other French composers – visited Bayreuth to take in the Wagner experience. And, as with so many others – even Debussy who most staunchly resisted Wagner’s influence – Massenet’s music was from then on coloured with the reflective timbre of the Bayreuth master. This Jordan brings out most obviously through the strength and relative rigidity of his interpretation in contrast to Pappano’s more openly lyrical reading, though also the tone Jordan obtains from the orchestra suggests a German influence. At times I find Jordan’s orchestral sound just a touch bland – but in this regard it is better by far than the bland-beyond-belief reading achieved by Yves Abel on Decca’s Bocelli set. Jordan keeps the tempi and action moving reasonably well, although inevitably at the end of big numbers the audience intrude somewhat to dispel the atmosphere and disrupt the flow.

3. The long, taxing tenor part requires a complete palette of mood and expression throughout the range: Marcelo Álvarez also took the title role in the production conducted by Pappano at Covent Garden. Whilst he may not be the most natural stage actor (he favours the old technique of ‘stand and deliver’) or perhaps the most obvious presence as Werther, he sings at all times most persuasively to put across the inner tumult, frustration and torment of the character. In big moments – indeed one could say, throughout – his delivery tends towards the declamation side of things, though in quieter moments he shades down to good effect. Vocally he is in superb shape, and his feeling for the words is most readily reflected in his facial expressions, that draw you into his death scene rather powerfully.

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?): Elina Garanča as Charlotte possesses, like Álvarez, a strong, rich voice that is not without its steely aspect. She sings the role forcefully and characterises with certainty. I can imagine that her portrayal might have come across slightly better in the house than it does under the close scrutiny of cameras, but there is little if anything to cause much displeasure short of an occasional hardness of tone that creeps in when in extremis. Sophie too is cast as a soprano role, but Ileana Tonca’s voice is appropriately somewhat lighter than Garanča’s giving the roles their much needed balance against one another. Tonca’s acting, whilst restrained, also shows sensitivity to character.

5. Subsidiary roles should draw out sufficient character beyond their vocally limited parts: I found the lesser parts as uninvolving here as I have found them elsewhere. This, I am afraid, rests largely at the feet of Massenet, given that he gave the characters relatively little to work with. None of the singers here though stands out for the wrong reasons, with Alfred Šramek making a brave fist of Le Bailli. The children’s chorus are adequate but not what one would expect were this a studio performance.

This is a version with much to recommend it, even though it is not the last word on Massenet’s score. In overall terms, comparing Decca’s audio recording and this DVD musically I find much in favour of the DVD. The stage production presented here, however, might be an area for slight concern. Not that director Andrei Serban’s conception of the drama is terribly strange: his vision of Sophie as a lesser Charlotte can carry credence with the right protagonists, as largely he has here. The domestic setting, simultaneously indoors and out, is a dramatic device that has to be accepted, but in the end it does afford many opportunities for atmosphere – Werther’s emergence from the shadows, snowfall, etc. – that capture something inherent in the score, though the mixing of furniture from different periods throughout the production never quite sits easy on the eye if one is sensitive to these things.

The ‘bonus’ of Marcelo Álvarez and Elina Garanča at the Vienna Opera Ball singing a zarzuela duet is pleasing enough, but I would suggest that and no more.


Evan Dickerson

 

 



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