Monday, February 24, 2014

Christmas Carols in July

I was delighted on Saturday, February 22, to see the Metropolitan Opera's production of Mr. Massenet's Werther, based on Mr. Goethe's novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. The 1774 novel created a sensation when first published, an obvious attack on what some considered the overly rational style of the Enlightenment. Passionate young men emulated young Werther, some even attempting suicide in despair over unrequited love. Sorry if that's a spoiler.

Jonas Kaufmann as Werther
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera  
I don't find Werther a likable character, to be honest. Self absorbed, self indulgent, self pitying--just like the immature, very young man he is. Paul Thomason's program article quotes W.H. Auden, who considered Werther "...a complete egoist, a spoiled brat, incapable of love because he cares for nobody and nothing but himself and having his way at whatever cost to others." In contemporary terms, an emo kid who sulks noisily because he can't have his way. (His way, for the record, would be to have Charlotte return his love, but she is already promised to Albert.)

On the other hand, I find Jonas Kaufmann's performance of the very complex and demanding role quite beautiful. Fully equal to the many vocal demands, both lyrical and dramatic, Mr. Kaufmann is also quite good at portraying Werther's joy and passion and despair. His "Pourquoi me reveiller", the often-excerpted aria in which Werther states his passion openly yet covertly by reading poetry to Charlotte, was ardent and expressive while also controlled and sweet at times. (I thought conductor Alain Altinoglu took the aria quite slowly, however.)

The girl he couldn't have was sung quite well by Met debutante Sopie Koch, who has sung Charlotte opposite Mr. Kaufmann before, as well as Oktavian, the Composer, Dorabella, and Rosina, at some of the world's great houses. Her Act III solo scene, in which she pores over Werther's letters obsessively, tormented by his long absence, was quite stirring. Although Ms. Koch sings quite skillfully, I found her sound lacking in brilliance, in "shine". I also wondered about her French at times.

Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Other cast members were simply stellar. Lisette Oropesa's Sophie was adorable, her singing completely beautiful and her characterization of the bubbly young girl believable. David Bižić (I don't know how to pronounce it either) was a fine Albert, and left me wishing Albert was a longer role. Also notable were Jonathan Summers as the Bailiff, Charlotte's and Sophie's father; and Tony Stephenson and Philip Cokorinos as Schmidt and Johann, the opera's comic relief. The six children playing Charlotte's and Sophie's younger siblings all did a fine job, and children's chorus director Anthony Piccolo deserved the bow he took with them at the opera's end.

Visually, this new production is stunning. Set and costume designer Rob Howell, lighting designer Peter Mumford, video projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, and director Richard Eyre all deserve kudos. Projections were skillfully used and unobtrusive, most important during transitions between scenes. Costumes, inexplicably updated to Massenet's time rather than Goethe's, were quite beautiful. Most dramatic was the Act IV set, Werther's simple room, an elevated box at the back of the stage, which moved slowly downstage during the interlude preceding the act until it was at the edge of the stage. It was quite a stirring effect.

Why Christmas carols in July? The opera begins with the Bailiff's children rehearsing Christmas music in July, an early example of elements that seem out of place or not quite right. It also ends with the children singing the Christmas carols* outside Werther's window as he is dying. From Werther's moody and melancholic nature, to Charlotte's clear efforts to act the loving wife to Albert that she isn't, to Sophie's occasional habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, there are many story elements that make one uncomfortable. Mr. Massenet and his librettists skillfully wove them together into an opera that is a jewel of the repertoire, and one we are fortunate to see this season at the Met.

*Don't get me started on the correct use of the term carol!


Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

It was a fun afternoon of melancholy!

Dr.B said...

I saw this in Paris. Unforgettable.