Massenet’s Werther is hardly anyone’s favorite opera. Many dismiss it with the label “tacky” – and truth is that, were it not for the fancy of some star tenors, it would not be produced at all. All that said, the whole French repertoire has been rediscovered – even in France – and Werther, thanks to the advocacy of tenors like Roberto Alagna, Ramón Vargas, Marcelo Álvarez and Jonas Kaufmann, has mushroomed in the seasons of many opera houses.
This does not mean these tenors had to start over from a forgotten tradition. On the contrary, almost every important French tenor has left a recording – and even a secondary tradition of Spanish tenors such as Kraus, Carreras and Domingo may be traced back in the discography. Although Rolando Villazón’s French is quite more realistic than many Spanish-speaking Werthers, I would have no doubt in placing him among the Spaniards, for his emotionalism and fervor. I had seen Villazón only once as Lensky in the Lindenoper in Achim Freyer’s infamous production that makes any possibility of acting impossible. This evening, I could understand the Mexican tenor’s artistry. Guided by unbridled emotional generosity, he plunged into the predicaments of the young Werther with almost ferocious intensity. What in less sincere hands could sound and look exaggerated seems vehement, intense and very moving. He drives his lightweight yet rich and dark-hued tenor dangerously hardly, but the tonal quality is dulcet, the coloring is varied, the inflections are expressively drawn and the commitment is enormous. By the end, few eyes were still dry. Indeed, Villazón is a very special singer.
His Charlotte, Sophie Koch, has an ideal voice for the role. It is vibrant, full-toned and large enough, but still light enough to suggest youth. Act III maybe took her to her limits, but her adeptly focused high notes survived the test. Although she started the evening a bit too cool for the circumstances, she increasingly gained in pathos during the evening and almost matched the tenor in intensity by act III. Audun Iversen (Albert) has a noble and large voice, a little bit wooden in the end of the range, but even that worked out well for the role. He only seemed uncomfortable on stage. On the other hand, the bell-toned Eri Nakamura wad a vivacious and sensitive Sophie. Last but not least, Alain Vernhes was a congenial Bailli.
I am hardly a specialist in Massenet’s music, but I have found Antonio Pappano’s conducting very convincing in its large, late Romantic gestures. Act III sounded almost Tristanesque in its richness of sound, flexibility of beat and forcefulness of accent.
In the days of Regietheater, Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production might seem unimaginative in its historical propriety and unobstructive concept, but his meticulous direction of actors (as revived by Andrew Sinclair) is immensely refreshing; the level of dramatic engagement achieved here unfortunately rarely found in operatic stages. Although acts I and II could feature more interesting sets, acts III and IV found inspiration in Hammershøi and looked beautiful and expressive. I just wished each character had been allowed more than one costume during the whole opera.