Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Jules Massenet's Werther

Ball scene, Photo - Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

At 2 hours and 50 minutes, Werther is one of the shorter operas, and the seemingly ever-popular theme of unrequited love persists with handsome and acclaimed tenor, Jonas Kaufmann staring in Massenet's adaptation of Goethe's tragic romance and brilliant Sophie Koch as Charlotte, his unattainable love interest.

I am treated to another HD rendition of a live performance at New York's Metropolitan Opera in comfortable and up-close seats at the Odeon Cineplex in Niagara Square. The camera close ups are dazzling. I watch Kaufmann and Koch expertly frame their beautiful voices with mouths expressively rounded, the sounds flowing like golden streams, sometimes soft and soothing but often gathering force into powerful surges of emotion. This production is directed and designed by Richard Eyre and Rob Howell; maestro Alain Altinoglu conducts the superb Met orchestra.

Jules Massenet's Werther premiered at the Vienna Court Opera in 1892, based on Goethe's 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. It's the story of a melancholy poet whose impossible love for a married woman along with his resulting alienation with the world, leads to suicide, the Romeo and Juliet archetype of gifted yet doomed individuals fighting against an unforgiving political and social status quo, a concept repeated throughout literature, theatre, film, and music right up to West Side Story.

The Met - HD

Sophie Koch

Richard Eyre Interview


The New York Times suggests that "Mr. Kaufmann is ideal in the role. He sings with dark colorings, melting warmth, virile intensity and powerful top notes." I agree as did the audience stopping the production cold in its tracks at one point with a long ovation after a wonderfully sung aria.

Jonas Kaufmann as the title character and Sophie Koch as Charlotte, Photo, Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera   Jonas Kaufmann debuts as the title character in a new production of Massenets Werther, Photo, Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera   Jonas Kaufmann, Photo, Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera   David Bizic as Albert, Photo, Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

The Times depicts Sophie Koch - "in her overdue Met debut... a plush, strong voice and aching vulnerability (as) Charlotte... (She) sang with gleaming intensity." Again, I agree. "The bright-voiced, impressive soprano Lisette Oropesa is a sunny, winning Sophie." Checkmark. And, "Alain Altinoglu led a beautifully restrained account of the score, drawing supple, deep-textured and nuanced playing from the Met orchestra." Double checkmark!" In fact, at curtain call, the entire cast could have stood there forever, milking a long, thunderous standing ovation.

At the beginning and ending of the tragic story, children sing Christmas carols as bitter counterpoint to first, the death of Charlotte's mother and then, the suicide of the poet, Werther. The mother is responsible for binding Charlotte to an arranged marriage with Albert, a man she does not love. The last scene is as dramatic as it gets, although one does wonder when the tenor might draw his last breath. Nonetheless, the physical intensity of the narrow staging in Werther's tiny bedroom, the vivid CSI-worthy blood spatter on the walls as a constant arrest for the eye and the final reach for a pistol by Charlotte make one squirm uneasily in one's seat.

Kaufmann and Koch, Photo, Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

Using a series of frames, Rob Howell's tight, intimate sets emphatically bracket the stage, and his off kilter proscenium make one feel dizzy as befits the early outdoor romantic action with the frames moving more upright for indoor scenes, reflecting a rigid society that constrains Werther's hope, just as Peter Mumford's lighting moves from lush summer green to a cold, murky winter. Later in the opera, Charlotte's home is portrayed with towering bookshelves, making the actors seem minuscule amidst powerful cultural rules that force them into a loveless union. In the background, Eyre effectively uses videos by Wendall K. Harrington to depict changing nature - seasons, birds flying and perched in trees that sway in the breeze.

Goethe's novel and Massenet's opera are set in a small town near Frankfurt, Germany, in the late 18th century, but the Met's production and detailed costumes help place the action near WWI. Werther's flowing, dreamy garb and long curly locks are perfect for the romantic poet and statuesque Koch looks like a Renoir painting, celebrating beauty and feminine sensuality.

All of the cast as befits the Met, are on top of their game from baritone Jonathan Summers who plays the Bailiff in the opening scene, to his drinking buddies, tenor Tony Stevenson and the bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos as Schmidt and Johann, bright-voiced soprano Lisette Oropesa as Sophie, Charlotte's sister and Albert played by bass David Bizic in his Met debut. Christopher Job and Maya Lahyani were perfect as the two young lovers Brühlmann and Kätchen.

Again, during intermission, unlike those in the Met's elegant 3,800-seat house, we are treated to interviews of all of the principals including Kaufmann, Koch, Eyre, Howell and maestro Altinoglu, and with great fascination, we watch sets moved back and forth into place.

The singing is consummately accomplished and the acting superb. Kaufmann captures the brooding angst of the love-sick poet and you can almost see Koch's heart break at the end. Kaufman's range is remarkable from his soft murmurs to the powerful jet-engine surges and everything in between. The French mezzo, Koch, in her Met debut, stays with him, each using the other to soar higher as they proceed.

  • Synopsis:

    Sophie Koch as Charlotte, Photo, Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

    Opera Online

    Jonas Kaufmann raconte Werther - Partie 1/2 (VOSTFR)

    Jonas Kaufmann raconte Werther - Partie 2/2 (VOSTFR)

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