Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Massenet - Werther (Vienna, 2017)

Jules Massenet - Werther

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Frédéric Chaslin, Andrei Serban, Ludovic Tézier, Adrian Eröd, Sophie Koch, Maria Nazarova, Alexandru Moisiuc, Peter Jelosits, Marcus Pelz

Staatsoper Live - 6th April 2017

Andrei Serban productions, or the ones I have seen anyway, are certainly distinctive but hard to associate with any kind of individual style that you might find with other opera-theatre directors. Even though they might seem a little abstract, with stylised modern elements that don't always match the requirements specified in the libretto, Serban's productions nonetheless look good and somehow still often match the tone of the corresponding work fairly well.  They aren't traditional and they aren't particularly challenging or experimental, but they get the work done. That's pretty much how you would sum up Serban's production of Werther for the Vienna State Opera.

Peter Pabst's set designs for the Vienna Werther are in fact perhaps less stylised and more naturalistic than most of Serban's other productions. Providing, that is, that you are happy to accept a huge sprawling tree in the middle of the stage not only in the outdoor scenes, but looming there also in the background of Charlotte's otherwise normal living room and in Werther's little bedsit. No one is likely to be put off by such large symbolism in such a Romantic opera where the emotions and entanglements loom large, and it does give the production a certain character that lifts it above the mundane into the realm of the soul. It's the expression of the soul that is what Werther is really about, and it certainly does that at least in Massenet's score.

That grand gesture seems to be enough for Serban, and it's hard to argue with the effectiveness and style with which the production functions and heightens the overheated situations of the drama. The large tree contrasts strongly with the rather suffocatingly stuffy, austere old-fashioned furnishings, costumes and manners. There's a sense that this ever-present looming tree, the enduring symbol of life, nature and solidity comes to present an intense strain on Charlotte when she tries to resist her own nature. With Werther ever present in her mind, the stuffy conformity of her marriage with Albert rightly feels almost unbearably oppressive to Charlotte by the time we come to Act III.

The Vienna production harnesses much of the force of the deeply suppressed erotic charge that Massenet managed to create in Werther. The idea of composing the opera came to the Massenet after attending a performance of Parsifal and soon after visiting the home of Goethe, where he was struck by a passage of 'The Sorrows of Young Werther'. Inspired by his visit to Bayreuth and the sentiments of Goethe's famous work, these two powerful experiences are forged into a deeply romantic and emotionally charged work that captures perfectly the subject and heightened sentiments of Werther.

It's not Parsifal however but Tristan und Isolde that seems to exert the strongest influence over the opera. If there's little that is directly Wagnerian about the score other than the use of leitmotif and musical themes that surge throughout the whole work, there is something of the doomed lovers situation in Werther and Massenet is no less skilled in swirling those charged situations of repressed and unconsummated Romantic desires around in a potent concoction that can only be resolved in death. If Tristan were the only one who drank the potion and Isolde resisted, he would be Werther; hopelessly melancholic at the impossibility of their union. Death can only follow, and there is even an emotional and musical echo of the Wagner's Liebestod in Charlotte's response to Werther's fatal wounding.

Werther is not so much Wagnerian however as a full-blooded expression of German Romanticism, and the true nature of the force of those sentiments is fully delivered by the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper under the baton of Frédéric Chaslin. There's no holding back on the huge sweep of the score, but it neither overplays nor seeks to find some kind of subtle naturalism in the situations. The score should be given this kind of full unmediated expression, and so too should the singing.

I've never been totally sold on the baritone version of Werther, but Ludovic Tézier shows here that it's not so much tenor or baritone that matters as who is singing the role and what they can bring to it. Tézier may not have a tenor's romantic allure, but he has the melancholic aspect of Werther in his demeanour, in the haunted inflections of his voice, and his delivery is superb. Charlotte is a role that Sophie Koch sings often and she is one of the best interpreters of the role. There's a little more strain showing in her voice these days, but everything that is required is there. Her delivery of the tumultuous reflections of Act III, for example - so important to the work as a whole - is outstanding. There are good performances and solid casting right down the line, with Adrian Eröd as Albert and Maria Nazarova as Sophie.

The fate or at least the state that Charlotte is left in at the closing notes of the opera are also all-important, in many ways much the same as with Isolde when Tristan expires. Having Charlotte turn the pistol on herself as some other productions have done could certainly be justified as an expression of where her mind is, even if it could be said to be over-playing the drama. Serban's direction for this scene is a little more even-handed or at least proportionate, but having Albert a bystander to the final scene, stomping off in a huff over what he has witnessed rather than being stunned into shock - surely the more likely reaction - tends to take away from where your sympathies and the emphasis ought to lie. It doesn't quite take away however from what has come before, with Koch and Tézier together generating a passionate and intense climax of real Romantic stupor.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live