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Jules MASSENET (1842–1912)
Werther (1892)
Keith Ikaia-Purdy (tenor) – Werther; Armin Kolarczyk (baritone) – Albert; Tero Hannula (bass) – Le Bailli; Andreas Heidecker (tenor) – Schmidt; Mika Kares (bass) – Johann; Gideon Poppe (tenor) – Brühlmann; Silvia Hablowetz (mezzo-soprano) – Charlotte; Ina Schlingensiepen (soprano) – Sophie; Clara Lim (soprano) – Käthchen
Children Chorus of the Helmholtz-Gymnasium; Supernumeraries of the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe; Badische Staatskapelle/Daniel Carlberg
Stage director: Robert Tannenbaum
Set design: Christian Floeren
Costume design: Ute Frühling
Dramaturgy: Margrit Poremba
Directed for Television and Video by Brooks Riley
rec. Live, Badisches Staatstheatre Karlsruhe, 2007
Sound format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1; Picture format: 16:9
ARTHAUS 101317 [140:00]


Experience Classicsonline

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. Curtain.

The performance 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 meatier role.

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.

Göran Forsling 


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