Jules MASSENET (1842 - 1912)
Werther (1892)
Rolando Villazon (tenor) - Werther; Alain Vernhes (baritone) - The Bailiff; Sophie Koch (mezzo) - Charlotte; Eri Nakamura (soprano) - Sophie; Audun Iversen (baritone) - Albert; Stuart Patterson (tenor) - Schmidt; Darren Jeffery (bass) - Johann; Zhengzhong Zhou (baritone) - Brühlmann; Anna Devin (soprano) - Käthchen; Jack Sullivan, Valerie Zakharov, Pierce Adams, Kitty Woods, Harry Oakes, Nico Taylor - The Bailiff’s young children; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, May 2011
Libretto with German and English translation enclosed
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9340 [74:47 + 57:29]
Having collected most of the available ‘official’ recordings of Werther - as opposed to various off-air or other live productions - I have been astounded by the superb artistic quality. It all started back in the early electrical recording period with Georges Thill as a hard-to-surpass Werther. It was more than twenty years before Cetra issued a rival with Ferruccio Tagliavini and his wife Pia Tassinari - still not in my collection and probably ruled out since I believe it is sung in Italian. It took another fifteen years before EMI took the inevitable decision to record Nicolai Gedda and Victoria de los Angeles, a set that rightly was issued in the Great Recordings of the Century series; sadly not available at the moment. Then came a deluge of recordings: DG set down Domingo and Elena Obraztsova, EMI chose Alfredo Kraus and Tatiana Troyanos and Philips took two of their top names, José Carreras and Frederica von Stade. Somewhat later RCA picked Ramon Vargas and Vesselina Kasarova whereupon Erato launched Jerry Hadley and Anne-Sophie von Otter. EMI, again, recorded their dream couple Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu and finally Decca, who had never jumped on the Werther train before finally found a worthy tenor in Andrea Bocelli who teamed up with Julia Gertseva as recently as 2004.
So, do we really need another Werther? It seems that opera freaks have a constant need of new recordings of their favourite operas and that there is a lot of comparing going on when they meet. There are so many different components that have to function together in any operatic production and rarely do all these components fit one hundred per cent. They don’t here either but they cohere well enough to make this recording attractive, so the answer is: Yes! We - or many of us - do need this recording.
Where are the flies in the ointment, then? Being recorded live during performances we have to accept a lot of stage noises. Those of us brought up on studio recordings still haven’t got used to this. It’s no problem in the opera house, it isn’t particularly disturbing on DVD either, when we can locate the source, but here it is a nuisance and diverts us (OK, me) from the musical enjoyment. The recording is clean and detailed but it isn’t very atmospheric and the balance emphasizes the soloists, who are very much up-front with the orchestra seemingly at some distance. This doesn’t mean that the orchestra is subdued. There is a lot of body to the sound and they play superbly.
Antonio Pappano has recorded Werther before almost fifteen years ago. That recording is certainly one of the most recommendable, not least thanks to Pappano’s conducting. His reading has not changed radically, but it seems that there is an extra surge at Covent Garden. There’s more ebb and flow in the music, which on a good day is more natural in a live performance than in lifeless studio sessions. I haven’t made direct comparison with the earlier recording, but the feeling of a special event is strong and in the emotional climaxes the intensity becomes almost unbearable.
That most emotional of tenors, Rolando Villazon makes his long awaited return to Covent Garden after problems with his vocal cords. Here, back on form, those climaxes are indeed tremendous. In the past he had tendencies to overdo the dramatic outbreaks. Now it seems that he has cooled down a bit - and that is good - but there is no lack of power. He is just as involved in his character as he was before. I can’t find any noticeable deterioration in the quality of the voice, which I complained about when reviewing his solo disc with Mexican songs. Here he is fresh in tone and, most important of all, his half-voice is still in marvellous shape. Few if any present-day tenors have such an array of nuance. Villazon applies this with the music and text in mind, not to show off his technically impressive diminuendo. The emotional and musical high-spot is no doubt Pourquoi me réveiller in act III (CD 2 tr. 9). Readers who are not yet convinced that they need this recording should lend an ear to that aria. Thill, Gedda, Kraus, Domingo, Carreras, Alagna are all superb in their different ways but Villazon pulls the heart-strings even more. He is a romantic, but he isn’t sentimental.
There are other reasons to get this recording. One is Sophie Koch’s Charlotte. Not since 1931 has there been a native French-speaking Charlotte on an official recording. Then, Ninon Vallin sang the role opposite Thill. Admittedly both Victoria de los Angeles and Frederica von Stade were fluent in French but there is still a certain thrill to hear Sophie Koch, whom I have admired for quite some time as a wonderful Lieder singer. She also brings something of that capacity to her portrayal of Charlotte. Occasionally she seems a bit too heavy for the role. I have the same feeling when listening to Tatiana Troyanos (with Alfredo Kraus). She is a marvellous singer with real ‘face’ to her singing but slightly matron-like. Sophie Koch’s is a large voice today, but this pays dividends in for instance the opening of act III (CD 2 tr. 2-3) where she is overwhelming. The encounter with Werther later in the act (CD 2 tr. 8) finds both singers in great shape.
The rest of the cast are more or less subordinate to the central couple but not unimportant. The young Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura has risen to stardom during the last couple of years. She makes a fine Sophie, less of a soubrette than many Sophies. Albert, one of the dullest personalities in the whole opera literature, is brought to remarkable life by the likewise young Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen. He is a major find and seems cut out for a great career. Just listen to him in his first act solo Elle m’aime! Elle pense à moi! (CD 1 tr. 8). Not even Thomas Allen and Thomas Hampson are better!
Alain Vernhes has been around for more than two decades but is still in good voice. He makes a sonorous Bailiff. His pals Schmidt and Johann, impersonated by Stuart Patterson and Darren Jeffery also contribute to the overall excellence of this issue.
Yes, we do need this recording, but is it a downright first recommendation? Let me put it this way: I can’t imagine getting rid of any of the sets I listed at the beginning of this review, but if I was stranded on that desert island and had time to bring only six sets of Werther this new DG recording would be one of them. The other five would be Prêtre (los Angeles, Gedda), Plasson (Troyanos, Kraus). Davis (von Stade, Carreras). Pappano (Gheorghiu, Alagna) and Nagano (Hadley, von Otter). Anyone buying his/her first Werther who chooses the present one will, I’m convinced, fall in love with both the work and the artists.
Göran Forsling
If stranded on a desert island and had time to bring only six sets of Werther this would be one of them.