Jules Massenet - Werther
Royal Opera House, 2016
Antonio Pappano, Benoît Jacquot, Vittorio Grigòlo, Joyce DiDonato, David Bizic, Heather Engebretson, Jonathan Summers, Yuriy Yurchuk, François Piolino, Rick Zwart, Emily Edmonds, Vasko Vassilev
Cinema Season Live - 27 June 2016
Inviting and distancing, open but claustrophobic, mannered but intense, intimate and dramatic; Jules Massenet's Werther is all these things, expressing two sides of a compelling attraction in an impossible relationship. It presents two simultaneous points of view, that of Werther and that of Charlotte, the two creating between them an irresistible force that rises up in the huge swells of Massenet's dark Romantic score. It's a fabulously intense and focussed drama that delves deeply into the emotions, and as the Royal Opera's House production shows, it can be a terrific piece of music-theatre.
Benoît Jacquot's production of Werther, first seen at the Royal Opera House in 2004, but well-known also in France and elsewhere from its filmed performance, currently still stands as one of the most successful efforts to get across everything that is great about the work. There is nothing new or revelatory about Jacquot's interpretation and direction of the characters, but in conjunction with Charles Edwards' expressionist sets and lighting that illuminates and amplifies every gesture and sentiment of the players, it does probe the emotional depths of these highly Romantic characters for truth.
In the introduction to the Royal Opera House Cinema Live broadcast, Simon Callow continually referred to Jacquot's production as being cinematic but it's more painterly, striving not for cinematic realism but rather aiming to create an emotional environment that matches the moods and the undercurrents that tug at the protagonists in Massenet's score. Fortunately, it works equally well in both respects, its tableaux capturing the essence of each act for the theatre, while the cinema screening draws in on the intimacy of the epic small-scale drama that takes place in this environment.
Act I of Werther then is blazing summer with Christmas songs, a combination that deliberately throws one off balance a little. Edwards' sets likewise capture the simplicity of the little children's choir rehearsal and the domesticity of Charlotte's family arrangements. The hugely over-sized door and wall on the other hand all indicate a world outside of greater expanse, a world that is inhabited by and opened up by the arrival of Werther. It's an inviting prospect, yet one that is closed off by Charlotte being promised to the much more solid and dependable Albert.
Acknowledgement of the emotions opened up by Werther and the impossibility of submitting to them is reflected in the set for Act II. It's a vertiginous promontory with a vanishing point into infinity, showing nothing in the background but open blue skies that fill half the stage. The sky however has an oppressive quality with a faintly tempestuous autumnal instability brewing within it. There's nothing naturalistic about this landscape, which when combined with the punishing lighting creates an atmosphere of unbearable tension for the impossible situation. The heat is building and something is going to break.
Act III and Act IV's set designs might look traditional by comparison, but the dark interiors are just as evocative of the underlying mood and where the direction of the personal drama is taking us. Its sober period designs and lighting also serves as a contrast to what might otherwise come across as something overwrought. Overwrought only however if everything else has been played with a heavy hand leading up to it, and fortunately in this well-measured and dynamic production that never happens.
The attention to the detail and the character of Massenet's music helps determine the right approach and Antonio Pappano manages to find the correct nuance not just for each scene but for each individual moment. Despite the source being Goethe's famous drama, Massenet's Werther is thoroughly French in its character, but with a clear Wagnerian German influence in its sweeping Romanticism and in its through composition with leitmotifs. There's also something Italianate in the dark operatic tragedy and full-blown melodrama in the expression of the main character's sentiments.
Joyce DiDonato who cites those Italian passions in a brief interview segment shown during the live cinema broadcast, and between the American mezzo-soprano and Vittorio Grigòlo the Royal Opera House have a couple of very strong and passionate singers capable of reaching all those emotional peaks. Viewed close-up on the cinema screen both are occasionally little stagey in their mannerisms, but this is an intense opera with big gestures and it's not surprising that in a somewhat intentionally stylised production that it doesn't always achieve the kind of naturalistic realism we might like.
In terms of singing performances Grigòlo and DiDonato are both phenomenal as they chart the difficult course of the relationship between Werther and Charlotte. Grigòlo's Werther is almost bursting with passion by the time we get to the final two Acts, while DiDonato's Charlotte is clearly aghast at the recognition of where her actions and passions have led them. The characterisation is all there in the singing voices and they are both utterly compelling and impressive. There's a strong supporting cast here too, with engaging performances and similar attention being paid to character right down the line. It all contributes to a near complete mastery of everything that is in Massenet's music and everything that is great about it.
Links: Royal Opera House