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Thursday 5 May 2011


Covent Garden
Royal Opera House

Werther is often cited as being Massenet's greatest work and you can see why - it's a magnificent score, opulently fragrant late romantic music, and just so wonderfully French. Colours and smells, enchantment, sentimentality, lightness, passion, indulgence. But there's a an air of seriousness and High Art to this score too, something absent in the rest of his operas, its presence probably explicable because its libretto is drawn from Goethe. Really though this is all pretence and wishful thinking - nothing could be further from Massenet's talents than Teutonic profundity - he is a genius of orchestral shadings, delicious suavity, finely delineated emotional states, ravishment of the senses. Behind the refinement and surface shimmer though there are always burgeoning erotic undertones, and like Strauss at heart he's all sensuality and sleaze.

Naturally I'm a big fan.

Sophie Koch is perfect as Charlotte - evincing both youthful beauty and a sentimental picture of maternal warmth. She is not a glamorous singer, but the sound is pure, very big and well controlled with excellent intonation and diction. Up close she can be horribly distracting with her strangely mobile rubber lips, (completely inappropriate for German singing) but I really liked her this evening.

Rolando Villazon is definitely back on form (but not quite as good as he used to be), and warmed up throughout the evening, though seems underpowered now for the vocal climaxes of this work. In this reworking of Goethe's novel, Werther is less an idealistic poet than a moody love-sick narcissist. Villazon's acting is not exactly stellar, and the way he plays it, it's almost funny how little his character seems to actually care about Charlotte - he constantly sings about himself and his unbearable woe, barely listens to what she says in reply, and then sulks around brooding when she rejects him. When I commented on this to my opera going companion, she assured me that in her experience most people who fall in love after meeting someone once are actually as self absorbed as this - so its sort of realistic, because life can be this ridiculous!

Of the rest of the cast, Alain Vernhes as Charlotte's father had incredible vocal presence and is just the sort of effortlessly loud and clear bass-baritone that is a complete joy to hear in bit parts like this. I always appreciate the peculiarly French sentimentality of the children in this opera, particularly their Christmas song - Massenet really is the highest quality kitsch money can buy. Most of the rest of the cast was fairly unremarkable, though the diminutive Schmidt (Stuart Patterson) and the enormous Johann (Darren Jeffery) were quite an amusing pair of drunks, mostly because they carried on like an old gay couple.

The sets (by Charles Edwards) are gorgeous, as is the lighting (also by Edwards). The luminous grey-blue sky of the second act against the golden autumnal esplanade is very beautiful, and then the extraordinary start of Act 3, scene 2, white snow falling against a black background, with the room slowly moving forward from the deepest recesses of the stage - so completely perfect for the delicate susurrus emerging from the orchestra at this point in the score (harp and strings producing truly Schrecker-ian veils of sound in pastel shades and velvet hues.)

I'm actually not as much a fan of Werther as I am of Manon, Thais or even Don Quixote, basically because it's less rapturously erotic than the former two, and not as pathos ridden as the latter, but it still hits the spot often and with force! Dramatically, this production didn't convince, but I think the opera could work if it were more imaginatively directed, and had a far better actor as the lead. As it stood, it was an enjoyable evening, mainly for the music and visuals.

(Update: looking at youtube videos with Koch and Kaufmann - it looks like I was right - Benoit Jacquot a much better director than the ROH revival director Andrew Sinclair, and naturally Kaufmann gives the character depth and a vocal presence that Villazon can't quite muster).


  1. Just found Koch with Kaufmann in the same production on youtube - that's what I'm talking about!

    This is the sort of singing that makes me love a work more which to me is the ultimate goal of great singing.

  2. And this: