A passionate Werther at the Met

Sir Richard Eyre’s production of Massenet’s Werther, new in 2014, and its excellent cast this season represent the Metropolitan Opera at its best. The restrained but ever building tension between the characters, the passion unleashed but ultimately frustrated, and the ensuing despair are well crafted by Eyre, his cast, his conductor and his production team.

Especially effective is the inspired staging of the sudden and emotionally crushing death of Charlotte’s Mother at Christmas time. She, Charlotte and the younger children are out for an evening of caroling apparently. What should have been a bundled-up cozy warm night of good cheer is now empty, dark and grim: the snow is just cold, not seasonally joyful.

The pantomime occurs during the opening minutes of the somber prelude, but as the music brightens, so does the spring bloom on stage. The sets and costumes, designed by Rob Howell, transform the stage from whites and grays to greens and yellows before our eyes; videos by Wendall K. Harrington project budding trees, flowers, returning birds, a world transformed also by Peter Mumford’s lighting into the warmth of the summer sunlight. The Bailiff is already rehearsing his scampy children for next Christmas. Life goes on.

Mezzo Isabel Leonard is Charlotte in Massenet's  Werther

Mezzo Isabel Leonard is Charlotte in Massenet's Werther

But not really. Charlotte, his eldest daughter but still a young woman, is now the maternal figure in the family, with all of its household responsibilities. Further, it was one of her Mother’s last wishes that she marry the well-grounded, solid, but on-the-whole dull Albert. By the fall, Scene II of Act I as staged, she is three months married.

Eyre’s opening scenes highlight the pressures on poor Charlotte. She is unhappy and emotionally repressed for reasons she is unable to change. The lovely mezzo Isabel Leonard creates a complex Charlotte: the model of self-control, though her façade betrays a few cracks here and there, just enough to keep Werther’s hopes alive, just enough to drive him to despair and to his eventual suicide. Vocally, too, Leonard is controlled in the earlier scenes, but she lets her inner woman loose in the critical Scene One of the second Act (Act III as written). To Charlotte’s credit, she realizes instantly Werther’s intentions with the pistols, but, alas, she arrives too late to save him. Her façade now crumbling as she sees him dying, she declares her love for him and gives him comfort. Does she join him by taking her own life? Why does she pick up the pistol? Leonard’s Charlotte was wonderful. Brava!

Leonard and Vittorio Grigolo in the final scene

Leonard and Vittorio Grigolo in the final scene

Werther is unhappy too but emotionally expressive for reasons he too is unable to change: he loves Charlotte and now she's married. Vittorio Grigolo has, of late, made a run of the romantic tenor roles in the French repertory: Hoffmann, Massenet’s Des Grieux, this season Gounod’s Roméo and now Werther. As with every character, he brings his now customary passion to the stage, but here also I found a great degree of tenderness, elegance and refinement. One never doubts the sincerity behind his singing nor doubts his complete understanding of the emotions underlying the text. The aforementioned Scene One of Act II (as staged) is filled with his tension. They, Grigolo and Leonard, are a wonderful duo.

Vittorio Grigolo is Werther

Vittorio Grigolo is Werther

Soprano Anna Christy is Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister. Christy’s light silvery voice conveyed the cheerful positive nature of her character: life goes on. Maurizio Muraro is doting Daddy Bailiff: life goes on. Well, maybe this is because the old Bailiff has his two happy-go-lucky drinking buddies Johann (Philip Cokorinos) and Schmidt (Tony Stevenson), for whom life always goes on. David Bizic is the solid Albert, pleasing in voice at all times. Christopher Job is Brühlmann and Sarah Larsen is Käthchen: they’re a young couple in the village with relationship difficulties.

Conductor Edward Gardner accentuated the long introverted lines of the score, but did not shy away from giving substantial muscle to the larger emotional scenes. The tenderness of Werther and Charlotte’s dancing, followed by the sadness of her revelation of the engagement to Albert were articulated well both in volume and in pacing.

Charlotte and Werther reunite on Christmas Eve, Scene One, Act II

Charlotte and Werther reunite on Christmas Eve, Scene One, Act II

Massenet’s Werther is not a perfect opera, but, to be fair, not every opera in the standard repertory is perfect. Not surprisingly, the French found it too gloomy (it is in spots, as it should be, but its also warmly springlike and magical in other spots. “Mood appropriate” might be a nicer way to describe the score). Werther premiered in Vienna in 1892 after being turned down by the Opéra-Comique some years earlier. It lacks the concision, the complexity and the orchestral energy of Puccini’s masterpieces Bohème, Tosca and Butterfly, but then so do many other Italian operas from the period. This season’s Werther was close to perfect.

Review performance date: February 27, 2017.

Photos: Marty Sohl

Enjoy! It’s a soulfully emotional opera and the Met at its best!