I listened to several recordings of Massenet's "Werther" this past week, preparing myself for the Great Telecast Event. Then I reread Die Leiden des Jungen Werther, driven by terrible feelings of guilt. If Massenet had been inspired by Goethe's masterpiece to write an opera so darkly, intimately beautiful, surely I should give said masterpiece another try (my horrible, shameful confession is that I did not like Werther when I read it in school.) I don't know what was wrong with me the first time. Perhaps I failed to pick up on the self-awareness and gentle self-mockery with which Werther evaluates his own impressionable, impulsive nature. Perhaps I was too immaturely looking for "the main story" of Werther and his passion for Lotte, rather than absorbing all of Werther's experiences. In any case, this time, like thousands before me, I was drawn in, pulled along, and overwhelmed.
So, I felt emotionally braced for the telecast of the Opera Bastille "Werther." I felt ready to appreciate the sophisticated artistic and textual allusions of the production. I felt ready to immerse myself in the richness of the libretto. I felt ready to engage this opera with critical detachment! (I should know myself better.) The television broadcast had an irritating habit of taking one backstage in between, or even in the midst of scenes (why? why break the illusion so carefully created? Sophie isn't off-stage counting beats, she's off somewhere in the house playing with the children!) and sometimes dwelt on closeups long enough that--despite the extraordinary ability and charisma of the singers!--I itched for the tableaux which Benoit Jacquot intended the audience to see. Also, to my great chagrin, the streaming cut out during Werther's death scene (!!), coming back just before the end! And yet, I was overwhelmed.
Michel Plasson, as promised, had tremendous rapport with his orchestra and brought haunting beauty to the score. Ranging from feverish urgency to remote (and, yes, Romantic) dreaminess, the sound was always complex, hinting at the alternatives to Schmidt and Johann's insistent gaiety, or making the unspoken words between Werther and Lotte almost tangible. The staging was not what I had expected, but (I thought) very effective; highly stylized, even stark; the edges of the stage which clearly led off into other interiors or streets were strongly suggestive of Werther's Abgrund. The dreamy summer evening of Act I, in the Bailli's courtyard, is succeeded by the autumn of Act II ("Wie die Natur sich zum Herbste neigt, wird es Herbst in mich und um mich her.") Act III is terrifyingly stark and gray, with Lotte silhouetted in winter sunlight. Act IV forms a poignant contrast: Werther's garret is tiny, but its dinginess has a warm color--ochre walls, the blue coat, Charlotte's red shawl and even the splashes of blood provide welcome relief. I could go into detailed raptures on the technical accomplishments of the singers--phrasing! diction! pianissimi!--but perhaps their greatest achievement was to create a whole greater than the sum of these parts. Respect to the entire cast, especially the Bailli and Sophie; deep admiration to the two principals.
All reports are true: Jonas Kaufmann is Werther, and he suffers, dass es einem Leid tut. How the man sings! His use of dynamics was absolutely incredible, from notes that filled the house with passion to a thread of barely audible, exquisite sound. Sophie Koch was a Charlotte whose torment was the more poignant, I thought, for its restraint. Her Haltung (demeanor, I think, comes closest) throughout Acts I and II was heartbreakingly controlled. As Werther poured out his passion, she would stand still, so still, as if she were afraid that a movement would mean giving way to ecstasy, or breaking its spell. Credit goes to Jacquot for directing the movements of these two--Kaufmann almost afraid to touch her at first, his Zauberberg which draws him so irresistibly--then the mutual shyness of almost-lovers. This agony of not-quite-touching is broken only in Act III--"Moi! moi dans ses bras!"--and resolved only in the tenderness of Act IV. For me, Werther and Lotte's respective prayers of desperation were the most moving moments (before the end, of course!) Musical virtuosity gave the illusion of absolute, terrifying breakdown, in Werther's "Père, qui je ne connais pas..." and Lotte's "Seigneur Dieu! Seigneur Dieu!" Act IV was balm to my romantic soul, as these two finally, intimately embraced, Lotte with her love finally shining in her face, and Werther...! I believed him... exhausted, resolute, happy in the arms of the woman he loves, yearning for the forgiveness of the God he hopes to love... I believed him. Je rêve encore.