Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
Valentine’s Day didn’t go so well? Did Ferris again disappoint? Don’t worry, Werther’s day was equally abysmal.
The Met opened this season’s production of Jules Massenet’s Werther on Thursday night. The Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo stars in the title role and the American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard invigorates Charlotte, Werther’s love.
This production, led by Sir Richard Eyre, is mostly identical to the Met’s Werther of 2014. There is even one prominent holdover in the cast: David Bizic again gave a convincing performance as Albert, Charlotte’s husband. However, I noted small changes. For example, Werther in his opening nature aria does not address the looming statue of Charlotte’s deceased mother to as great of an extent.
The dominant theme of nature’s attractive force is established in Werther’s entrance in Act 1. Here, Werther sings about the beauty of the brook, the coolness of the shade, and the vibrancy of the bursting flowers. His imploring hand movements and facial expressions convey his utter devotion to nature, reflecting wise choreography decisions by Sara Erde. Looming in the back and foreground are long, drooping branches and shadows of linden trees, which connote nature’s omnipresent power.
One of Massenet’s major plot defects is the establishment of Werther’s and Charlotte’s relationship. In the opera, Werther declares his love for Charlotte in Act 1’s clair de lune scene. Later, during Charlotte’s Act 3 letter episode, Werther implores her to remember their times spent together, “Here’s the harpsichord that sang of my joy and trembled with my pain as your voice joined in with mine.” The impression is that Werther and Charlotte completely fall for each other after only one meeting. While this is not uncommon in opera, it does not correspond with Goethe’s original text.
To reconcile the plot hiccup, the prelude could be repurposed. Instead of emphasizing the mother’s death, which feels out of place in context of the work’s focus, Werther and Charlotte could be shown making music at the harpsichord, laughing while playing silly games and crouching excitedly over books—mouthing words to each others’ eager ears. These scenes would occur behind a grey, translucent curtain—hinting at the memories of a blossoming love. In so doing, the Met would give more substance to the lovers’ devotion.
Yes, this addition would disrupt a sense of linear time. However, establishing their relationship is more important to the work than a preservation of a continuous narrative arc.
Eyre stages Acts 1 and 2 with receding, left-tilting rectangles. These outlines disorientate the viewer: Eyre wants his audience to feel Werther’s internal anguish. He achieves a similar effect with Werther’s chamber in Act 4, which looms over the preceding act’s library. Since it is a smaller, intimate space than the prior act’s, it conveys actual and psychological distance.
The choreography during the clair de lune scene effectively communicates Charlotte’s attempts to detach herself from Werther. Werther bends his whole body toward Charlotte, slowly bringing his hand to her shoulder. Charlotte keeps her back to him, afraid of his transformative, dark allure.
Scenes like these make us empathize with Charlotte. Charlotte is tortured by love, torn between her love for Werther and the promise she made to her mother to marry Albert. Werther is oblivious to the conflict he is inflicting upon her. For instance, when she says she must honor her mother’s dying wish, Werther responds by expressing his desire to “keep these [her] eyes all to myself, this charming face, this adorable mouth,” – in essence completely ignoring her problems.
Despite Massenet’s labeling of the opera as a drame lyrique, hints of opéra comique surface. Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, twirls around the stage with a little origami bird – a light blossom intruding on the work’s dark aura. Anna Christy’s performance as Sophie exuded the necessary optimism, but her vibrato and voice presence were too great for the light, jovial role. And, Maurizio Muraro as Le Bailli, Charlotte’s father, brought a Santa Claus-like boisterousness to the role.
In the second act, Massenet plays a musical joke with the drunken characters Johann and Schmidt, who blasphemously sing their praises of Bacchus while outside a church. Spelled out – Johann, Schmidt, Bacchus (J.S.B.) – their tune sounds positively Bachian. These characters were enlivened with besotted revelry by Philip Cokorinos and Tony Stevenson.
Leonard imbued her Act 3 letter aria – “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes!” (Go! Let flow my tears!) – with the appropriate pathos. Each of her notes was conceived with careful thought, dripping with the despair of Charlotte’s streaming tears. Leonard understood that a trembling, vulnerable quality was needed here, not a powerful, confident bravado.
That being said, she still knew how to excite a powerful, Met-Opera-Hall-enveloping sound when she needed to. An example was her crescendoing line, “The emptiness is too great. Nothing can fill it (the heart)…” Here, Charlotte is overwhelmed by her love for Werther, longing for him to comfort her overflowing heart.
I wish Leonard’s diction was a little clearer in parts of her solo, especially when she sang high in her range. The upper register’s vowel-sounds sometimes sounded over-modified, which distorted their meaning.
The saxophone obbligato during Charlotte’s aria did not express the meaning of the libretto. With its contrapuntal, legato line, the saxophone represents Charlotte’s undulating internal tears set against the outpouring of her external ones. To capture the solemn sentiment, faltering yet directionally-aware phrases veiled by a subtle vibrato are requisite. However, the saxophonist’s performance was too loud, without any vibrato, and strictly in time. I recognize that orchestral players are demanded to reach the back of the hall with good, quality sound, however, this sonic goal must always exude the correct character.
Despite the saxophonist’s decisions, the Met Orchestra, led by Edward Gardner, gave a stellar performance. During Charlotte and Werther’s dialogue in Act 2, I watched as Gardner carefully followed their accelerating movements, surging the orchestra to follow suit. Earlier in the same act, there appeared to be a slight synchronization problem with Albert’s solo, but it was quickly resolved.
The orchestral interlude between Acts 3 and 4 was dynamic: trombones, trumpets, and bassoons soared a foreboding, accented triplet figure, foreshadowing Werther’s impending demise. Here, the brass and woodwinds, even after well-over two hours of playing, remained pointed and energized.
Shortly after Charlotte’s tearful epistolary grief in Act 3, Werther storms on stage for his anticipated Christmas arrival. He beseeches Charlotte to remember their pleasant evenings together. Partly to assuage herself and partly to distract Werther, Charlotte gives him the Ossian poetry that he was translating. Grasping it in his hand, Werther begins his, “Pourquoi me réveiller,” aria.
“Pourquoi” was spectacular. Grigolo approached the phrasing – especially the repeated three-eighth-notes rhythmic unit – with an organic sense of time that vitalized his singing. Propelling from these eighth-note figures, Grigolo leaped to emotionally-gripping summits—pleading, shaking, desperately grabbing his audience’s hearts. His solo was rightfully met with an uninterrupted minute of enthusiastic applause and raucous bravos.
During his final bows, Grigolo ripped opened the top buttons of his blood-stained, satin shirt, gesturing with large, circular arm motions stemming from his heart and whirling toward us. Pink bouquets were tossed like footballs by an enraptured concert-goer in the front row.
Two tenor titans within three years for Massenet’s take on The Sorrows of Young Werther: The Met has a lot to be proud of.
Massenet’s Werther runs through March 9, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live March 4, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9FM. Information and ticket listings (including student and same-day rush tickets) can be found online at metopera.org