When Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther was issued
in the 1770s it became a cult book, read by many a young man who
had experienced an unhappy love relation. He and his fellows in
misfortune then contracted ‘Werther fever’ and, dressed like the
hero of the novel in yellow trousers, yellow waistcoat and blue
coat, took their lives. I can’t believe that today’s young men
would do the same but who knows? Massenet’s hero as well as Goethe’s
is a dreamer who has lost contact with reality and in this production
of the opera his alienation is accentuated through his deviant
attire – not blue-and-yellow but red – and his zombie like appearance
in a 1950s society where the bourgeoisie are shut in in cell-like
dwellings and portrayed in all their decrepitude: The Bailiff,
recently widowed, slovenly subsided in the sofa in front of the
telly, sipping from a bottle while the children are practising
their Christmas songs; his pals Schmidt and Johann are already
tipsy when they arrive, pocketflask in hand, Sophie is crippled,
walking with crutches; Albert and Charlotte, after three months’
marriage, walking arm-in-arm as though they are on their way to
a funeral. And in the midst of this Werther stumbles about, seemingly
ready to cut his own throat from his first entrance, squeezing
some flowers in wrapping paper as though they were a garbage bag.
The jollity of the opening – albeit ostensible – feels thin as
varnish and the director has already told us during the prelude
that we are in for sad tidings. The stage is all white, to the
right a wooden bench, centre-stage a telephone pole (?!) and beside
it a hole in the ground. A priest is saying some finalizing words
and leaves, so does Sophie while in the background Albert looms
motionless but threatening. On the bench Charlotte is sitting,
hands in lap. She gets up and goes to the grave, where she cried
silently but excessively. Werther is dead. We begin at the end.
proper seems in many ways like a visit to a doll’s house, sometimes
with more than one room exposed but screened off with curtains
or folding walls. The milieu is often only faintly outlined
and rather abstract. The open place where Werther broods his
fate has artificial grass and artificial plants. Everything
combines to reinforce Werther’s alienation.
So far so good,
then. And the music always makes impact, charged with emotion
and, as almost always with Massenet, a fair share of plain sentimentality.
The problem here is that it is late 19th century
sentimentality applied to a late 18th century story,
and set in the mid-20th century with a social realistic
perspective. The crucial point for Charlotte’s decision to marry
Albert – in spite of her love for Werther – is that she promised
her mother on her deathbed to do so. This is one point where
the libretto differs from Goethe’s novel and in a 20th
century setting this doesn’t seem plausible – which it was a
hundred years ago. But what most of all makes this production
hard to stomach is the alienation – and not only Werther’s alienation
from the world but also the emotional distance to Charlotte.
He sings all the heartrending music, he pronounces all the heartrending
words but one never gets an impression that they mean anything
to him. I have seem Keith Ikaia-Purdy in this role before and
in other roles as well and he isn’t the liveliest of actors,
but quite as awkward as here I can’t remember seeing him. Sometimes
it was only painful. Unless the director wanted it this way
to make it more understandable that Charlotte discards him.
This may be a point, since Albert is also portrayed as a stuffed
shirt. Armin Kolarczyk sings with expression but nothing of
what he says is mirrored in his face, which is stern, unrelenting.
Not until the curtain calls does he show a face. The two sisters
are on the other hand sensitive creatures of flesh and blood.
Silvia Hablowetz is actually masterly at showing her shifting
moods and her long soliloquy in the third act followed by the
final controversy with Werther is one of the reasons to see
the performance again. Ina Schlingensiepen makes a rounded portrait
of Sophie and actually looks her age – she is supposed to be
fifteen! The minor parts are well acted and Mika Kares as Johann
has an impressive bass voice that I would like to hear in a
The singing at large
is serviceable rather than great. Ikaia-Purdy nowadays sounds
rather grey and worn but he has both the required power and
ability to nuance. Ina Schlingensiepen bright girlish timbre
is well suited to Sophie but the best singing is bestowed by
Silvia Hablowetz, who certainly has the measure for this testing
role and vocally it was she who carried the performance.
Video director Brooks
Riley has chosen to show most of the opera with the cameras
at half-distance instead of too intrusive close-ups. Daniel
Carlberg’s conducting is of the no-nonsense kind - not too
much treacle - and there is some good acting from the children
in the opening scene. The opera ends where it started: in the
churchyard, where Werther shot himself instead of in his attic.
The audience was
enthusiastic and probably I would have been too if reporting
from the Badisches Staatstheater and not from my video room,
where performances are so much more ruthlessly exposed.