Massenet: Werther [2 CD]
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Massenet himself, in Mes Souvenirs (published in 1912, the year of his death), described how on a visit with Hartmann to Bayreuth in 1886 to hear Parsifal, the two then travelled to Wetzlar, the setting of Goethe's partly autobiographical story. After they had looked around the house where the original Charlotte had lived, Hartmann presented the composer with a translation of the book. In fact, Massenet, who meticulously dated his manuscripts, seems already to have begun writing Werther in the summer of 1885. He completed the vocal score on 14 March 1887, and was occupied with its orchestration until 2 July.
Werther was initially turned down by Léon Carvalho, director of the Opéra-Comique, as being too dismal. Massenet then sat on the score for five years, awaiting more auspicious circumstances in which to unveil it. These finally presented themselves in the shape of a request for a new work from Wilhelm Jahn, director of the Vienna Court Opera, where Manon had notched up more than 100 performances.
Composition of the score began earlier than these dates suggest, as soon as Massenet had some sort of text to work on. His regular practice with any libretto would be to memorize it, then to compose it in his head, usually while out walking, and then only when he was satisfied to put it down on paper. This is partly what gives his immaculate word-setting both its precision and its spontaneity. Few composers have ever set the French language with such a sensitive feeling for its natural inflections and expressive possibilities.
Massenet's technical sophistication and flexibility are also demonstrated throughout the score by its fluidity of texture and structure. As a work conceived for the Opéra-Comique, Werther was heir to a long tradition that included spoken dialogue linking the musical numbers, as in Bizet's Carmen (1875). Massenet's own Manon (1884) retained the use of mélodrame - spoken text over an orchestral accompaniment - but Werther is through-composed, with no spoken text at all; and though it remains essentially a "number opera", with the characters moving into set pieces at emotional high-points, the joins between these "numbers" and the linking material are so well disguised that the listener is scarcely aware of any alteration in the level of discourse.
Partly because of the masterly continuity of Werther, and partly because of its large-scale use of reminiscence motifs, critics right from the first tended to discern in it Wagnerian influences. But French music criticism at the time was obsessed with the question of "Wagnerisme", and all sorts of scores of the period were found to bear his influence. So it is with Werther, whose structural principles essentially represent a tightening-up of Massenet's own earlier procedures. In his use of reminiscence themes, he is developing a technique employed by French composers as far back as Méhul at the beginning of the 19th century.
Werther went on to become one of the composer's most frequently staged works. Film director Benoît Jacquot's 2011 production at the Royal Opera House was conducted by the company's music director, Antonio Pappano, an interpreter of great flexibility and dramatic insight. As the Financial Times wrote, "the outstanding conducting of Antonio Pappano, working with a Royal Opera orchestra on top form, made sure that ... Massenet's opera blazed vividly into life." It was undoubtedly Pappano's unique artistry that laid the bedrock for a highly successful musical performance. Rolando Villazón sang the title part, one of opera's great outsider figures and one of the Mexican tenor's signature roles, which he first assumed in Nice in 2006 and later at the Vienna Opera in 2008 as well as in Paris; the opera also marked his directorial debut in Lyon in 2011. Of Villazón's return to Covent Garden for this performance, the Guardian critic wrote: "His artistry is as astonishing as ever, fusing sound, sense and gesture in an uncompromising quest for veracity." Alongside him the French mezzo Sophie Koch sang the tragically conflicted Charlotte - for her, too, a kind of signature role in which she has been acclaimed in Vienna, Madrid and Paris as well as London. The Japanese Eri Nakamura personified Charlotte's spirited younger sister Sophie, the Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen her unloved husband Albert, and the distinguished French baritone Alain Vernhes her solidly bourgeois father, the Bailiff.
From the Artist
The Bailiff's house. July 178 ...
A short prelude introduces the first act, which takes place at the home of Charlotte's widowed father, the Bailiff. Charlotte keeps house, being the eldest of eight children. The Bailiff is practising a Christmas carol with the little ones. His friends Schmidt and Johann look in, tease him a little for starting to rehearse carols in July, tell of the preparations for the great festive occasion in the next town, and remind the Bailiff that they will expect to see him later that evening at the inn. Sophie, Charlotte's younger sister, enters; they discuss Werther, a melancholy young man who is to escort Charlotte to the ball that evening, and Albert, her absent fiancÃ©.
Werther comes in after the friends have gone, as does Charlotte, who has dressed for the ball; they set out together. The Bailiff strolls to the inn while Sophie remains alone. All is quiet again when Albert returns from his journey, earlier than expected. He converses with Sophie about his forthcoming marriage but asks her not to let anyone know he is back.
Werther returns from the ball with Charlotte by moonlight; they stop in front of the house and Werther, inspired by the romantic mood and feeling that his affection is reciprocated, declares his love for Charlotte. She too is unable to escape the enchantment which surrounds them both. At this point, the Bailiff arrives and, without seeing them, enters the house and announces that Albert is back. Werther thus learns that Charlotte is engaged and that she has sworn to her mother on her deathbed that she will give Albert her hand. The spell is broken; Charlotte enters the house while Werther cries in despair, "Another, her husband!"
At Wetzlar, September, the same year, a Sunday afternoon in autumn.
Schmidt and Johann are sitting outside the local inn and watching the villagers who have come to celebrate the pastor's golden wedding. Charlotte and Albert, who have been married for three months, are also amongst the guests, as too is Werther, who is anguished at the idea that Charlotte belongs to another. Albert, who thinks he knows the reason for Werther's despair, tries to console him by telling him he understands his torment. Sophie runs in happily, but Werther evades her invitation to dance; he wants to be near Charlotte, and when he sees her he is compelled to speak to her of his love. Charlotte rebuffs him and asks him - for the sake of her peace of mind - not to return until Christmas, then she leaves him alone. Sophie returns and invites him to join the party, but Werther flees precipitously.
Albert's house. Christmas Eve, 5 p.m.
Charlotte, alone at home, thinks of Werther and reads his letters, in which he broods over his desperate loneliness. She now admits to herself that, in spite of all her struggles to forget him, she still loves Werther as much as he loves her. Sophie tries to cheer Charlotte out of her dark mood and invites her to come home to her father and her brothers and sisters for the festivities. Suddenly Werther himself appears, pale and haggard. Together they evoke tender memories - reading Ossian and music-making. Noting the young woman's confusion, Werther realizes that she loves him and tries to kiss her. Charlotte fights against her passion and finally her sense of duty triumphs: she says farewell to Werther and goes out of the room. Werther leaves. A servant brings Albert a letter from Werther asking to borrow his pistols as he must go on a long journey. Albert forces Charlotte to hand over the weapons to the messenger. She does so, but when he leaves she takes her coat and rushes out of the house.
Werther's study. Christmas Eve.
Charlotte comes to Werther and finds him lying mortally wounded on the floor. In his despair Werther has shot himself. In the last minutes of his life he asks her to forgive him. She confesses her love to him - and while outside children are singing merry Christmas carols, Werther dies in Charlotte's arms.
Top Customer Reviews
Werther - the romantic, tormented poet - is heartland territory for the superb Rolando Villazón. This performance in 2011 marked his full comeback to the opera stage after throat surgery, and what a triumph it was - despite the undoubtedly enormous pressure of having all critical eyes upon him. All the Villazón trademarks are there - joy, longing, despair - pouring through the golden voice that has lost none of its beauty or dexterity. In his hands, Werther becomes real. Just listen to the joy he radiates in the first aria "O Nature pleine de grace", contrasted with the second act's "Lorsque l'enfant" - a desperate cry for the help that never comes. And in the moment when he learns of Charlotte's betrothal, he just breaks my heart with the bleak sadness in his voice as he tells her to remain true to her promise.
The character of Charlotte has sometimes been described as "cold" - but this cannot be applied to Sophie Koch. She is a beautiful Charlotte, with a voice full of richness of tone and clarity. Torn between a dutiful life of stability and the romantic fantasy of poetic love - she makes her character sympathetic and believable.Read more ›
Villazón retains that appealing blend of utter sincerity and pure ham, and it found a fitting home in the role of the maudlin young poet. His voice is still thrilling but now he gives evidence of control, avoiding over-singing and the bursts of reckless bravado that marred his voice in the past. It seems the experience with the surgery has given him better insight as to how to manage his essentially lovely instrument.
Pappano and the Royal Opera House orchestra once again prove that when they are good they are very good indeed. He sails through the emotional undercurrents, allowing the music to ebb and swell. Sophie Koch offers her saintly best as the priggish and unsympathetic Charlotte, her voice is pure cream and full of exquisite phrasing, and the rest of the beautifully-matched cast includes Eri Nakamura as Sophie, Alain Vernhes as Le Bailli and Audun Iversen as Albert. But the star of the recording/performance is Rolando Villazón and he indeed proves that he remains one of the days leading tenors. Grady Harp, May 12
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I love most recordings of Werther, from the amazing 1931 recording with Georges Thill to this live Covent Garden performance. Read morePublished 13 days ago by J. Luis Juarez Echenique
Opera is a visual art as much as a aural experience otherwise why would they even bother with a stage at all?... Read morePublished 21 months ago by Mightymouse