Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Massenet - Werther

Jules Massenet - Werther

The Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2014

Alain Altinoglu, Richard Eyre, Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, David Bižić, Lisette Oropesa, Jonathan Summers, Philip Cokorinos, Tony Stevenson, Christopher Job, Maya Lahyani

The Met Live in HD - 15 March 2014

Much as I try - and I've listened to a lot of his work - Massenet is a composer I've never been able to connect with on a musical level. There are exceptions of course - and Werther is certainly one of them - particularly when the work in question is given a thoughtful stage presentation. Manon, for example, stands or falls based on whether the director is willing to draw the personalities out of the characters, and Don Quichotte can be a wonderful and tragic flight of adventure if it's directed by Laurent Pelly. Werther however, you can't really get it wrong. Surely. It's all there in the music and even the most basic illustration of Massenet's perfect setting can convey the full impact of Goethe's highly romantic work. Basic illustration is however something that you don't often get with Metropolitan Opera productions or Richard Eyre, and I'm not sure their over-elaboration of elements of this production really add anything to the work.

To be fair, Richard Eyre's production, while it does seem terribly old-fashioned and theatrical with fussy details, does have some modern touches that in some respect relates to Massenet's old-fashioned compositional style with its (I feel) uncomfortable relationship with Wagner-influenced modernism. This is particularly evident in the overture in which Eyre stages the death of Charlotte's mother as a prelude to the opera. This is undoubtedly a significant event and the music that accompanies it is similarly brooding with foreboding, with death and its impact on those left behind. In particular, it determines Charlotte's future security in a promised marriage to Albert, and that is what is going to be the great tragedy of Werther's love. This prelude then sets the tone well for what follows, but it's also an example of how literally everything will be laid out, filled in and made explicit on the stage.

While there are certainly broad sweeps in the music, Werther is, admittedly, not so easy to pin down to a consistent overall tone. Certainly there is a large fatalistic romanticism that hangs over everything, but Massenet's score also portrays various little colourful incidents - the children's Christmas carol singing at the height of summer, Charlotte's relationship with her brothers and sisters, the Bailiff's appearance and his visit to the inn with Johann and Schmidt, the ball and intimations of the beauty of nature - all of which have to fit into the overall tapestry. These are important since they represent the life that is gradually squeezed out of the picture by Werther's all-consuming dark despair. This, I would suggest, is however is something that the conductor needs to manage more than the stage director, and Alain Altinoglu responds well to the challenges presented by the varied tones of the work.

Unfortunately, Richard Eyre feels that it's his job not only to depict every colour of the musical score in the staging, but to fill in where he feels that Massenet and the libretto haven't supplied enough detail. In the opening prelude this is acceptable and it's impressively staged, with projections and scene changes that capture the passing of time, set mood and location, the machinery allowing the set to fan out into rolling hills that tilt the stage and skew the lives of the characters. Eyre's production however goes way beyond merely setting the tone. The action of Werther can be left semi-ambiguous and unstated, but Eyre has a very definite, literal view on Werther's stability and his descent into despair and takes care to emphasise them for the audience.

There are, for example, no doubts here that Albert knows all about Werther's letters to Charlotte and that he, and everyone else, knows exactly what Werther's intentions are when he asks to borrow Albert's pistols. In some respects, this can be justified as it adds to the fatalistic romanticism of Goethe's work, that there's only one way that this can end and that everyone has to submit to the natural sequence of events that tragically have been set in motion that will inevitably end in Werther's suicide. Charlotte undoubtedly knows it here too, and - in one choice that I thought worked well in this production - follows this fatalistic path to its inevitable conclusion where she also prepares to take her own life as the curtain falls. In the context of this production, this is a perfectly consistent and effective choice that plays out well.

It's not the choices that Richard Eyre makes necessarily however, as in how he makes everything overly explicit, leaving no room for ambiguity for the viewer to make their own mind up about Werther as a hopeless romantic or as a pathological case. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is in the overly graphic scene of Werther's suicide. In my experience, this is often (and best) left unseen as an off-stage event. Massenet's score and his fate leitmotifs are powerful enough for this to work more than effectively. Eyre not only shows the sequence of Werther's despair, but graphically depicts him shooting himself in one of the bloodiest scenes I've ever seen on the stage, shooting himself through the heart (of course), with blood splattering all over the walls behind the bed in his dingy room.

It certainly a highly charged scene and I would agree with Eyre (in an interview with Peter Gelb during the interval) that it (and the production as a whole) is in keeping with the contemporary references to Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov - both in terms of the subject and the period and in terms of darker undercurrents of the content - but there's a feeling that Act III tips over into more modern depictions of screen violence. Tellingly, Eyre compares Jonas Kaufmann's acting ability to Al Pacino, and I wouldn't disagree with him either (it's largely down to Kaufmann that this works as well as it does), but it would seem that like most dumbed-down cinema depictions, Eyre doesn't trust the viewer to be able to work out undercurrents and make connections for themselves, and needs to spell it all out for them.

With all this over-emphasis, there are times when you think that Jonas Kaufmann is also over-emoting, but in the case of a character like Werther there's probably no such thing. Although many certainly did in Goethe's time, Werther is not a figure that you can entirely relate to nor completely sympathise with from a modern sensibility. You can however recognise the depth of his feelings from Massenet's writing and from the soulful delivery that Kaufmann expresses so powerfully. It could be a little more restrained and guarded in expression, but in the context of this production, it's about right and Kaufmann's ability is as impressive as ever. And comparisons to Pacino are no hyperbole either - this is a committed, convincing dramatic performance.

If there are some concerns about the stage direction, there are however no doubts whatsoever about the quality of the singing or the suitability of the casting. I'm a great admirer of Sophie Koch, who is a versatile and committed performer of tremendous ability. She sometimes sings more from the heart than from the page, but I'll take that kind of emotional and dramatic involvement over note-perfect singing technique any day (I would put Anja Harteros in the same category). She knows the role and character of Charlotte well and her experience shows, working well with Kaufmann and often to spectacular effect. In the rather distinctive approach taken to characterisation here, Albert and Sophie also have significant roles and both David Bižić and Lisette Oropesa make a strong impression and sing well.

This is a typically solid Metropolitan Opera production, overly bold and literal perhaps when Werther would benefit from a more intimate and open approach, but Richard Eyre's production isn't without some distinctive touches.  In the end however, it's the singing that carries it through.