On a High Note

By

BY CHRISTINA BIANCO

A Review of Werther

Kaufman in action
Kaufman in action

Jonas Kaufmann may be the most sought-after tenor in the opera world right now, and after the broadcast of Massenet’s Werther last Saturday, audience members can be left with no doubts why he has been leading productions around the globe. Even though the March 15th broadcast had a very unfortunate technical glitch which caused the audience to miss the opera’s last seven minutes of audio, there is no doubt that many audience members would have left the theater with a positive lasting impression. From the moment that Kauffman took the stage as the madly lovesick Werther, he gave a performance that was both musically inspiring and artistically brilliant. The title tenor role was incredibly infatuated with leading lady Charlotte, and he languishes ceaselessly throughout the first few acts of the opera. Even though this archetypical tenor role may seem superficial, Kauffman presents the character with such conviction and intention that Werther’s fatal attraction to Charlotte seems probable.
Werther (pronounced vair-tair) by Jules Massenet is loosely based on The Sorrows of Young Werther by Geothe. It is the story of the doleful young courtier in 1780s Germany as he falls impulsively in love with the Charlotte, the oldest daughter of the widower Bailiff.

The first act opens with a scene of Charlotte’s mother dying but then quickly transitions to some time later when Charlotte’s father Bailiff, now a widower, is teaching a Christmas carol to a children’s chorus (even though it is July). Then two of Bailiff’s friends come and discuss how Charlotte, his eldest daughter, is going to be escorted to a ball by a man named Werther. The audience is then introduced to Charlotte, and Werther arrives and watches as Charlotte prepares her young siblings’ supper. They meet and leave for the ball, from which they return very late. By the end of the night, Werther is completely enamored of her. But then his declaration of love is interrupted by the announcement of the return of Albert, Charlotte’s absent fiancé. Charlotte ruefully explains how she promised her dying mother she would marry Albert, and therefore Act I ends with Werther’s deep despair.

After the first act Werther continues to pine relentlessly after Charlotte, even though she has now married Albert. And although Charlotte attempts to brush off Werther’s affection, in the third act she realizes the true depth of her feelings for the heartbroken Werther. But the opera still has a tragic ending, for its protagonist takes his own life, and although Charlotte rushes to his side in the final act of the opera, at that point she is powerless to save him.
The Metropolitan Opera’s adaptation of this was fairly traditional, albeit very dark. The opening scene was set in a courtyard with a projection of a small German town in the background. But even though the beginning of the first act seems to take place during the day, the lighting would suggest that the scene was taking place at a time more like twilight, creating a darker ambience. And when the quick transition occurs to the ball, everything was almost completely blacked out except for a strategic spotlight on Werther and Charlotte. The overall darkness contributed to Werther’s psychology and provided a sense of foreboding for the audience.

The music in Massenet’s opera is lyrically appealing and harmonically rich. To be a success as Werther, a tenor must be incredibly versatile, able to portray conflicting emotions while singing some of the most demanding tenor repertoire. Kaufmann tackles the role from his very first aria with a good mixture of warmth and intensity, along with powerful top notes.

In his first interview with Patricia Racette, Kauffman acknowledges that Werther is one of the most versatile roles. He asserts that he tries to portray Werther’s “sickness” by remembering similar situations in his own life and incorporating his own real feelings into the opera. And Kauffman’s dedication to his dramatic portrayal really sets him apart as an opera singer. The director Richard Eyre (who has worked with acting legends such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Judy Dench, and Ian McKellen) described Kauffman as a “first-class actor” who could easily hold his own against any one of the artists he had worked with. Kauffman was no stranger to this role, having performed it several times before in other productions, but Eyre asserts that when approaching this production, Kauffman kept it fresh and didn’t cling to any of his past experience. Eyre also notes that his job as director was merely to provide the context of the piece, and Kauffman did the rest of the work.

The one thing that I thought was definitely lacking in this production, however, was Sophie Koch’s portrayal of Charlotte. Even though Koch has played Charlotte in many productions before, her performance seemed somewhat flat. She remains very stagnant in the first two acts, and even in the third act, when she begins to become her most vulnerable, Koch still seemed to be reserved. This may have been due to the fact that the role has almost become too familiar to Koch, because she really lacked vitality, and this was especially apparent as she played opposite Kauffman. However, Koch herself stated in her interview that every night of a production is different, so I would be curious to see her play Charlotte in a different production, and compare her differing approaches to and interpretations of the character.

Overall, Werther was a joy to watch. Although a stereotypical opera-plot, the music was breathtaking and the production quality incredibly high-caliber. I would highly recommend this production to both opera beginners and veterans alike.

Christina Bianco ’17 ([email protected]) loved seeing an opera over spring break!