Werther, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, May 2011

He’s an anguished young man in love, but Werther lacks the red-blooded energy of Des Grieux (Manon) or Athanaël (Thaïs), and his unrealisable love for Charlotte turns into a suicidal obsession. The opera is based on Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, which can be seen as a cautionary tale where Werther dies alone, yet Massenet’s opera gives us a more glorious ending with the lovers united as Charlotte cradles the dying man in her arms. There they are in a lonely room within the stage, while snow falls outside, and the red shawl Charlotte wrapped around her white dress before rushing to Werther’s side matches the red blood on his white shirt. It’s a sad and lovely scene, and the audience roared their approval of Rolando Villazon in the title role, supported by Sophie Koch as an enigmatic Charlotte.

Act IV, Werther and Charlotte

Villazon seems ideally suited to this role, and though sounding a trifle underpowered he commanded the stage with his poetic anxiety. It was a super performance. The irony of this sad tale is embodied in a clash between the aristocratic sensitivities of Werther, and the simple small-town life personified by Charlotte, and her relations: her fiancé, later her husband, Albert, and her younger sister Sophie, along with the other characters and the children, who appear at the start and are heard again at the end during the death scene. Charlotte serves as their mother, sharing her love between them, but she cannot share love between Albert and Werther. She has different feelings for the two of them, well expressed in Act II when Albert asks her if she is happy and without regrets. Her response that if a woman has by her side such an upright and kind-hearted man, que pourrait-elle regretter? That says it all.

Bailli and children in Act I

This opera has an excellent libretto, the music is wonderful, and the orchestra played it beautifully under Pappano’s direction. Yet I feel it doesn’t grip audiences today in the way that Goethe’s 1774 story gripped sensitive souls of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. We live in a rather different world, foreshadowed by the children whose happy singing is heard at the beginning and the end. Their appearance worked well in this fine production by Benoit Jacquot, with its excellent costumes by Christian Gasc, well matched by Charles Edwards’ lighting and set designs, which show a grey background to the scenes in the open air, making it appear that only the here and now matter. Werther’s tragedy is his suffering in the here and now, which he expresses in Act II when he sings that in dying you cease to suffer and merely pass to the other side. But while Massenet’s music for Werther brings out huge emotions and stress, he gives Albert a much simpler line, strongly sung by Audun Iversen. The other, un-tormented characters were all well portrayed, with Eri Nakamura delightful as Sophie, and Alain Vernhes suitably dull and cautious as the Bailli.

One thing, however, disturbed the calm atmosphere of Act I. From the Amphitheatre the sound of water was persistent and intrusive, and other people I spoke to felt the same way. There is a pipe and water trough on stage but no water flows so the noise was confusing, and clearly heard even in orchestral high moments. Could this be Tennyson’s Babbling Brook? But that poem ends For men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever — yet fortunately it ceased after Act I.

There are five more performances, ending on May 21 — for more details click here.

Leave a Comment