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Over the past three or four years, my personal favourite Massenet opera keeps switching between Manon and Werther. As of now, and it's been like this for over a year now it's Werther. The music is some of Massenet's most beautiful and powerful with a variety of orchestral colour, and while there may not be a huge amount structurally to the story, that cannot be said at all for all the conflicting emotions and complex characterisations- especially in Act 3- that the opera has. The eighth season of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series, which is not always consistent but always interesting, has been really impressive so far and Werther has replaced Prince Igor as my personal favourite of the season so far. The opening scene did have some mimed stage business that wasn't really necessary with some rather obvious symbolism with the tombstone. Werther's suicide scene was nail-biting and harrowing(mostly because of Werther was seeming to have a moral conflict as to whether to go through with it), but executed in a way that was reminiscent of a Martin Scorsese film, it is meant to have that nail-biting and harrowing effect but in that extreme a way? Not really sure here.
Visually however the production is striking. Some may question why Werther looks too much of a vagabond throughout the opera, with me it came across as a characterisation thing, showing his increasingly passionate, tormented state of mind the more unkempt he gets(in his entrance in Act 3 Kaufmann did look a little scary amidst the lighting). The costumes are traditional and a nice mix of distinguished and elegant, especially Koch's. The sets and props look great and are cleverly used(Act 3), some may find the claustrophobic grey boxed set in Act 4 too drab and compact, personally it wasn't a problem. But visually the wonder were with the projections and lighting. The lighting is very atmospheric, loved the contrast of the rustic look of the first two acts to the darker look of the last two acts, fitting with the moods of the story and characters brilliantly. The projections look stunning with colourful symbolism that don't look obvious, the most memorable being the magically seamless transition- one that could have easily been clumsy- from the ballroom scene to the return of the first setting as Werther walks Charlotte home. Coupled with the photography, there are few productions in the Met Opera Live in HD series that have a moment this striking and cinematic, even surpassing the very beginning-of-Bambi moment in Act 3 of Rusalka.
With the staging, it's compelling stuff. There are a couple of moments that weren't quite my taste, but one of Richard Eyre's strengths was always how much he got out of the characters and their emotions, like with Prince Igor the production achieves this brilliantly reading of a character-study(Werther to me is very character-driven) and a great one at that. Everything Eyre does is done and executed so intelligently and the cast deliver it with the passion and emotion the opera needs. The characters are always interesting, you always identify with Werther and Charlotte and a great job is done with individualising the rest of the characters too, even the children. The final scene especially the declaration of love is incredibly moving thanks to Kaufmann and Koch's incredible singing and acting and the whole of Act 3 is a tour-De-force. The idea of Charlotte and Albert on opposite sides sitting together was a good and faithful one, and the part with the bailiff and the children has its charm.
Musically, there isn't much to criticise either. The orchestra respond very well to conductor Alain Altinoglu. Their playing is polished and of tonal beauty throughout, and they have the ability to be powerful and delicate, especially in the preludes and the interlude between Acts 3 and 4(note the horns). Altinoglu's leadership consists of brisk tempos and incisive energy, and the tumultuous and nuanced moments are well-realised. If there was anything that could have been a little better, it was that some of the intimate bits could have had more lyricism and intimacy, Werther's aria in Act 2 could have had more space and had more dynamics perhaps. The children are very animated without mugging and their singing is very bright and clearly enunciated. Johann and Schmidt are sung and acted with vigour and character. Jonathan Summers sings sonorously and is sympathetic, grieving and authoritative. David Bizic's voice is warm and well-controlled, and nails Albert's concern, grace and later jealousy. Lisette Oropesa has a bright angelic voice perfect for Sophie and is really charming in a role that can be annoying at times. Her smile lights up the room, while her shock at Werther's sudden outburst is most convincing.
The two leads are the ones who captivate. Charlotte grows more mature and troubled as the opera progresses, note how she is dressed in each act, and Sophie Koch realises that and does so affectingly and with a lot of poise, nobility and command. Throughout her voice sounds radiant and rich, especially in her huge Act 3 scene, Charlotte's biggest moment and Koch sings and act the heck out of it. She shares an intensive chemistry with Jonas Kaufmann, who is just brilliant as Werther. From the way he's dressed he could have been a lunatic, but instead Werther is characterised with such passion and nuance, with subtle touches like his conflict to go through with the suicide. Kaufmann is also in great voice, his top notes all spot on and his middle register as chocolaty and baritonal as ever, topped with his unmistakable soft-singing. Especially in the final scene, that he could sing that quietly while being heard and being that steady despite being in an awkward position to sing that way is something to learn from. In conclusion, a terrific performance, moving, passionate, emotional, thoughtfully staged complete with one particularly magical visual and brilliantly performed. 9/10 Bethany Cox
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