The starting point for Massenet’s Werther was Goethe and his Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Andrei Serban’s staging for this Werther is the 1950s, and not the prescribed 1780 - the original instruction is for the village of Wetzlar, in Hessen. A huge tree dominates the stage throughout. A static use of stage space is intended to shift the audience’s attention away from costume and context and place it firmly in the interpersonal dimension, so that personal relationships are to the fore. Act III is set in a very ’fifties front room, with archaic black and white TV set. Charlotte smokes (the norm, then). The only unwelcome guest, scenically, is this huge tree, and its dead leaves that litter the “living room” floor. An old piano - a “harpsichord” on the on-screen translation when Werther refers to it! - sits in the corner, its keys remarkably uneven, presumably through disuse.
The opening Prélude is beautifully phrased and shaped by Philippe Jordan and the magnificent orchestra of the Vienna State Opera; that famous Vienna string sound shining through. Credits then roll over the Prélude, unfortunately, and there are various shots of the central image of a tree. Throughout Jordan does more than just accompany – the loving attention he gives to the score adds a whole new dimension. The Interlude between the third and the final acts - on screen we see a video of clouds in the sky - furnishes another example of Jordan’s dramatic grasp. The busy first scene offers proof profound of Massenet’s dramatic and musical genius; I should confess that I have long held Massenet’s stage works in the very highest esteem. The orchestra delivers the Act I interlude beautifully. During its course we see Charlotte and Werther wooing behind a gauze, which lifts just before Charlotte’s “We must separate”. Jordan has his forces paint Massenet’s tissue-delicate lines perfectly during the ensuing Charlotte/Werther scene.
As Werther, Marcello Álvarez cuts an ardent figure both vocally and physically, making him an ideal for Goethe’s imagined character. He is eloquent of voice, too, as his Act I aria, “O Nature, pleine de grâce” vividly illustrates - Charlotte observes him sing from behind the huge tree. He handles the agile Act II “J’aurais sur ma poitrine” with not only technical aplomb, but with a real wave of ardent passion. At a more static level - his meditation on death, later in Act II - he is equally impressive; the famous “Pourquoi me réveiller” provides another highlight.
Elina Garanca has previously impressed me as a superb Cenerentola, and this showing confirms impressions of her as a leading light in the opera houses of today. Her pitching, idiomatic phrasing and acting all combine to make her Charlotte intrinsically believable. The character’s torment towards the end of the first act is vividly conveyed, Garanca’s beautiful delivery underscored by Jordan’s innate understanding of the orchestral contribution. Garanca’s letter scene (Act III) is an emotional tour de force; the scene together with Álvarez at the end of the act positively smoulders. Her despair at the opening of the final act, as Werther lies dying on his bed, is palpable. In this final act, Albert watches from the shadows, like a ghost. As Charlotte kisses her lover and asks that their souls blend, her face is covered in Werther’s blood, an astonishingly poignant moment. The lovers lie together on the bed as the children sing the “Noël”, taking us back to the opera’s opening with such effectiveness.
Albert, Charlotte’s scheduled intended, is played by the vocally strong Adrian Eröd, who bizarrely, very quickly dons a native American Indian head-dress and mask - which just happens to be lying around - in his exchange with Sophie, is Albert. His aria, “Quelle priere de reconnaisance” (track 10) is perhaps not as idiomatic as Álvarez’s aria, and not as secure vocally either - there is a moment when one feels his voice might crack. Dressed in suit and tie in the second act, he looks the antithesis of the more impulsive Werther. In the third act, he has a crib brought in to go next to the Christmas tree – his plans are seen in relation to the emotionally draining Charlotte/Werther scene before it.
The other significant female role is Sophie; they managed to find some nice ’fifties glasses for her. Ilena Tonca is superbly light and, while fitting to Sophie’s girlish happiness (“Du gai soleil”, Act II), her voice is in no way lacking in depth or support. Her Act III scene with Garanca reveals just how much the voices are complementary … and therefore how carefully they were chosen.
Alfred Šramek is a most approachable Le Bailli, who teaches the children a Noël in the first scene. I like the resonant bass of Clemens Unterreiner’s Brühlmann, too.
Camera-work is excellent. One great example is the use of close-up at Werther’s Act 3 reappearance – we can judge in detail each character’s reactions to the other.
The bonus DVD item is “Garanca and Álvarez at the Vienna Opera Ball” (2005), among such luminaries as Seiji Ozawa. Garanca and Álvarez perform some zarzuela. There then follows an interview with the two principals, Eröd, plus the director Andrei Serban and the set designer Peter Pabst. Garanca talks about how the intent of the production is to make Werther fresher; “perhaps more sassy”, as the translation puts it – Garanca speaks in fluent German. Pabst states that it was his intent not to tell the story in his staging but to create a setting wherein the singers tell the tale; he doesn’t give away much.
This appears to be the same DVD as - from the same run as - the TDK version (reviewed by Evan Dickerson). Have Arthaus taken it over to replace their previous Werther? - the latter a Werther that evoked an indifferent response from Göran Forsling. Whatever the case, this Jordan version is well worth catching.
See also review by Evan Dickerson