Werther is, for me, a strange opera. It’s full of beautiful music, it’s all about tragic love, and yet if fails to thrill. It’s based on Goethe’s late 18th century novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and simply tells the story of a young, comfortably off middle class man falling in love to for a virtuous young woman, who has promised to her dying mother to marry another man. When he cannot have her, he kills himself. That is the whole story. All of it. In the 18th century the novel was extremely popular and even started fashions – young men took to wearing yellow trousers and blue jackets, and killing themselves with dueling pistols at the first sight of romantic trouble.
In the opera Werther takes Charlotte to a ball while her fiance, Albert, is away. It’s all very proper – she is the very image of bourgeois Christian virtue, caring for her younger siblings and her father after the death of her mother. He falls in love with her, but while they have been in the ball, Albert has returned early, and in the beginning of Act 2, Charlotte has been married for three months. Werther leaves town. In Act 3, we discover that Charlotte is indeed in love with him and doesn’t know which is worst – that he might come back for Christmas, or that he might not. He comes, and she ends up telling him that she loves him, but refuses to kiss him. Werther then writes to Albert asking to borrow his pistol, which he gives to Charlotte, asking her to have it delivered to Werther. She goes after him, fearing what he might do. There’s no interval before Act 4; during an orchestral intermezzo a shot is heard, and the curtain rises on Werther dying. Charlotte finds him, and gives him the kiss she denied him before, and he dies just as her siblings start singing a Christmas carol off stage.
It’s a story that wouldn’t translate well into modern setting, needing the social constraints of its period to really make sense, and this revival of a 2004 production by Benoît Jacquot is suitably period-minimalistic. The Act 1 set is pretty boring, while the Act 2 set, suggestive of a town square, is stylish but bland – the two acts together have just enough drama in them for one act, and somehow the static sets emphasise this. Only in Act 3 did I get a sense of what the director was trying to do – the action had been moved indoors into a darkly lit room, and suddenly there was a sense of literal and metaphorical claustrophobia. Act 4 set was actually visually rather striking:
Outside Werther’s filthy room (I though he was supposed to be wealthy?) the snow keeps falling on the dark stage, and as he grows weaker the light inside the room fades. It’s a stunning tableau evoking paintings by Henry Wallis, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps and Edouard Manet. This is a production that is super safe, almost to the point of being a lifeless; despite its best efforts, it didn’t quite grab me emotionally at any point.
This production was a first of sorts for me – I have never before seen a proper superstar tenor in an opera before (I have seen Carreras in concert and Domingo conducting), and it was an experience in itself. I’m no tenor fangirl, but I can tell that Vittorio Grigolo (called Spaghetti Bolognese by the gentleman – “I saw Maria here. And Tito Gobbi.” – next to me) sang exquisitely well. He has a soft, beautiful voice, very pleasant to listen to, and he poured as much passion into the role as the music allows. The audience went wild for him in the end (the structure of the opera doesn’t allow applause at the end of the arias), and quite right too. He was wonderful, and the fact that he can’t really physically act didn’t that much matter. Charlotte was sung another superstar, Joyce DiDonato. She too sounded wonderful, and the Letter Scene in Act 3 was the highlight for me. The aforementioned gentleman had thought that she looked “matronly” in the live broadcast, but from my seat she was nothing but youthful and sincere.
Tony Pappano made sure that everyone gave the music everything they have got; the orchestra didn’t hang about, the sound was dynamic and lush. The performance was absolutely top notch, but the music in itself just never quite catches fire, which was no fault of anyone involved.
Massanet’s Werther has two more performances left; there are some tickets left for both performances. Production photos from the ROH website.