This review is for the performance on Feb. 20, 2017.
Taking in the experience of Massenet’s “Werther” is a rather fascinating one. Not because the music is without a doubt the composer’s finest creation or because the Metropolitan Opera’s production is a dramatic home run (more on that later).
It has to do with audience interaction and engagement. Who would think that an opera about limerence would draw up such a hostile reaction from a modern viewer?
And yet it does. When Goethe conceived of his famous epistolary novel, the reaction was widespread with suicides growing tremendously as people turned to the lonely poet for inspiration. These days some people scoff at Werther’s obsession for Charlotte. Some people questioning how he could fall for her after one date and after she herself makes it known that “You know nothing about me.”
These questions will crop up these days at any performance of the opera, the audience’s ability to empathize with Werther really coming down to two things – a great tenor capable of expressing the character’s emotional turmoil both physically and vocally; and a production that gives us a strong narrative bent that makes the world of the story believable.
We got both in the Met’s current revival of Richard Eyre’s production from a few years ago.
Reframing the Narrative
The production itself is among the director’s finest work at the Met, right up there with his “Carmen.” Eyre’s brilliance, his “Manon Lescaut” aside, is his ability to connect with the characters and always draw new insights from them through different narrative devices. Don José’s descent in “Carmen” sees him move from a military force to a rebel in the midst of the “Spanish Civil War.” Like the blood stripe across the black curtain that dominates the opera, he is on both sides of the conflict and at the same time on neither, his sense of self negated in the process.
Eyre transforms “Werther” into the story of Charlotte. The opening curtain greets its audience with “Joyeux Noel” before the furious opening measures immediately throw tragedy right in our faces, Charlotte’s mother collapsing during a Christmas celebration. Throughout the opera’s painful prelude, Massenet’s leitmotifs, most of which are connected to the titular character himself, become connected to Charlotte’s mother, the two tragedies undeniably linked as a result.
Throughout this opening sequence Charlotte is the last to leave the stage, the emphasis squarely on her as a parentified child who must now become both sister, mother, daughter and fiancé to her siblings, father and Albert, a task that in some ways takes away her emotional freedom. The opening is capped by a video montage that shows us the mother’s gravesite which is immediately replicated onstage, a looming presence throughout the first act of the opera. In this light we understand Charlotte’s plight with greater intensity. We have witnessed her mother’s death and so we empathize with her need to honor her duty to her dead parent. It creates a theatrical Kuleshov effect of sorts. Having witnessed the death, we associate with it emotionally when we hear of it later. Without the visual reference, that line gets lost and our ability to understand Charlotte becomes all the more difficult.
This also places emphasis on the dramatic final act when Charlotte confesses to Werther that she had preferred to do her duty rather than follow her feelings, the ultimate price that she paid being his death. It becomes her tragedy, her own inability to distance herself from the opening tragedy leading to yet another by the opera’s end. And of course, when she takes up the pistol in the opera’s dying seconds, contemplating her own suicide or perhaps guilt, we are once more reminded that we are experiencing the tragedy of Charlotte.
From a merely structural standpoint, the opera is now bookended by two tragedies, one directly influencing the other through Charlotte.
The stage design by Rob Howell also plays into developing the characters quite vividly. The opening set, with its open space and constant visual references to nature calms and relaxes the viewer. As the opera develops and Werther inches closer to his suicide, the spaces become more confined. The second act is a plaza cluttered with benches, trees and a large dinner party that reminds Charlotte of her social obligations. Compare this with the opening act where there is but a small table on stage left that never interferes with any of the movements of its characters. Act 3 takes place in Charlotte’s lodgings, furniture thrown about in every corner of the room and four looming bookstands create a sense of severity. Act 4 is a crammed garret, the stage itself so small that it becomes a stage-with-in-a-stage, the effect claustrophobic for the viewer. While we can see these as representations of Werther’s own mind, they also reflect Charlotte’s psyche and, with the lone exception of the last scene, are more related to her than they are to Werther himself.
So how does the shift in narrative focus from Charlotte to Werther help us identify with him?
Without the prelude’s staging, Charlotte would not appear until halfway through Act 1, her first appearance seen by the audience through Werther’s eyes. At that point we would know nothing about her at all. Instead, thanks to Eyre, we know her before we know him, her tragedy and her dedication to the people she loves clear to us. We are already connected to her. In this light it becomes easier for us to understand how Werther could fall so passionately for her. We already experience that connection to her. Without that introduction, his sudden obsession for her becomes quite odd and off-putting.
Of course that is only half of the aforementioned equation – a strong actor is still an essential ingredient to the dramatic success of this opera. And with Vittorio Grigolo that is almost always a sure thing.
A Vulnerable Child Turned Into a Depressive Man
Our very first impression of Grigolo’s Werther was of child. He loomed about the Bailiff’s home in wonder at the nature and vibrant spring around him, a smile all over his face. He wrote furiously in his notebook and his singing throughout the opening “Ô Nature, pleine de grâce,” was gentle and relaxed, the vocal ingredients that would create his tempestuous meal as this opera unspooled, nowhere in sight. Warmth dominated his singing, no one rough accent to be found throughout this hymn-like opening. The final “Chers enfants,” in which Werther sings to the purity of youth, was sung in the tenor’s signature mezza voce, the sound hushed and disembodied until it rose into an effuse crescendo on the final note.
Initial social interactions were colored by awkwardness and a tinge of misantrophy. Charlotte’s younger siblings seemed to look on him with suspicion, one unwilling to respond to his smiles or gentle demeanor. His initial exchanges with Charlotte saw him timid and full of inexperience. He would shift his gaze away from her, lacking any idea how to deal with her. During the ensuing party scene, another brilliant touch from Eyre that allow us to see the Werther-Charlotte relationship develop onstage, Grigolo was unable to make the move, too scared to look at the beautiful woman beside him. Instead, Charlotte makes the first move, pulling him onto the dance floor. That seemed to push him into action, almost as if a power switch had suddenly come on, with no off in sight. Grigolo’s vocal resources seemed to grow in strength throughout the love scene, the confession of his feelings marked by a wider and faster vibrato, the volume growing, a trend that would make up Grigolo’s interpretation throughout.
In the second act, where Werther is at his most publicly humiliated, Grigolo managed to suggest the onset of a deep depression for the character, his mood swings jumping from one extreme to another, his voice ranging from gorgeously delicate in his oath to Albert to emotionally unhinged in such passages as “J’aurais sur ma poitrine.” In this latter passage we could hear the vibrato becoming wilder, the sound more ferocious, the phrasing filled with guttural accents that expressed Werther doing damage to himself. The final passage, “Lorsque l’enfant revient d’un voyage avant l’heure,” mirrors Werther’s opening aria “Ô Nature” in musical mood and symbolic gesture. But whereas that opening section sees the character aligned with nature through his love of the world, the second sees him communicate with the supernatural as a respite from his natural longing and surroundings. Grigolo opened this passage with the same delicate singing we heard from the “Ô Nature,” the child imploring the supernatural to aid him. But unlike that opening passage, where the tenor’s voice retained its finesse and child-like tenderness, it developed into a forceful passage of singing, Grigolo’s calls “Appele-moi!” filled with agony that could drive any listener into emotional devastation.
And from there it only got more depressing, his arrival in Act 3 marked by stone-like expression. He almost looked like a ghost, his pale face and short and hushed phrasing depicting a character on the brink of death. Only when he noticed Charlotte’s own devastation and realized the truth did his singing restore itself to its energized greatness. The famous “Pourquoi me réveiller, ô soufflé du printemps?” was marked by unbridled passion, the tenor throwing caution to the wind as he rang the high B flats with all the his vocal resources, the first such climax marked by a delicate diminuendo and the repeat pouring out with so much intensity into the audience that the over-enthusiastic ovation literally stopped the show for a few minutes.
After that moment of emotional vulnerability at its most heart-breaking, we saw the mental instability of Grigolo’s Werther come to the fore as he pursued Isabel Leonard’s Charlotte about the stage, grabbing her and imposing his will on her. Rape seemed imminent, placing the light back on Charlotte as a victim of this raving lunatic. We felt for Werther but also saw that he was already going to far in his obsession, Eyre’s decision to make Charlotte the focus giving the audience someone to emotionally cling to in this most dangerous of scenes.
This all made the final suicide plausible, Werther’s depression coming to its emotionally riveting climax. As he held a pistol to his head, we could see the anguish in Grigolo’s eyes. At the moment of decision he failed and in response to his intense fear, the tenor threw out a piercing scream as he threw the pistol aside. But after a few moments, he picked it back up and shot himself, the impact potent and thrilling. Having seen him fail in the attempt once, we can sense that there might be hope that he gives up again, the ultimate shot surprising and painful for the viewer. As he lay dying, red blood pouring all over his perfectly white shirt, the tenor sang most of the final scene on the ground, his phrasing detached and delicate. The bright color and agile vibrato was gone, replaced with a potent breathiness that made us feel his breathe slowly dissipating.
In the final analysis, Grigolo’s Werther gave us a rather complex portrayal of the title character. He could be frustrating in his aggressive obsession and yet we felt that in his loneliness and social awkwardness there was something off about him. He was always a child who never quite got the emotional support that would help him overcome emotional struggles. Unlike Charlotte’s brothers and sisters who always had a mother to tend to them, he never had that affection, abandoned to the world and seeking out parents in supernatural forces. He is in some ways detached from reality and the incompatibility with his desired reality caused him a deep depression that we feel compelled, but unable to help him with. And with Grigolo’s intense passion, we automatically not only empathized but learned to sympathize with his Werther’s pain, something that only the very best of singing-actors could truly manage.
Public vs. Private Vocal Personification
Equally impressive in her detailed characterization was Isabel Leonard as Charlotte. While we are presented to the leading lady as a mature mother-figure, her initial flirtation with Werther was fraught with playfulness and even a tinge of insecurity. She looked away when their eyes met. She threw quick smiles his way and even her body language was more relaxed and less rigid than we saw in other scenes where she had to play “mother.” Leonard’s vocalization had a relaxed air to it in the early scenes with Werther but grew harder and cooler in subsequent scenes.
This was most noticeable in her relationship with David Bizic’s Albert. Seated on a bench to start Act 2, the couple were stoic in their postures, barely looking at one another as they exchanged a few vapid lines. Whereas Werther speaks in poetic terms to Charlotte, his melodic line rising and falling with intense excitement, Albert sings in rather short and direct lines about how happy he is to be married to her, the orchestra’s accompaniment repetitive to a fault. Here Leonard’s singing was restrained and to the point. The excitement we heard hints of during the opening encounter with the eponymous character completely gone. When she pleaded with Werther to forget her in later scenes, her singing grew in intensity, her vibrato and sound strengthening, her body language free once more.
Act 3 is Charlotte’s moment to shine, Massenet allowing us to finally see her true feelings. Leonard’s voice had a pronounced weight to it, the color darker and the sound more direct and powerful. It was as if she had been hiding this vocal color for most of the evening, matching Charlotte’s own social restraint. Her frayed movement about the stage mirrored Grigolo’s own ravings from the previous act. She threw herself to the floor, banged on the floor and ripped up papers in unexpected bouts of torments. Her brief exchange with Sophie saw her curb her vocal approach a bit, returning to the color and phrasing we heard in the public scenes. Even during the emotionally visceral “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” Leonard sang with greater delicacy, almost piano, but the shimmer in her voice allowing us to feel the “tears.” Her encounter with Werther was marked by her shifting from passionate desire and a trying to keep him away, the internal battle forcing the audience into a difficult choice regarding who to place attention on.
Where Grigolo’s voice lost its glean in the final scene, Leonard’s was unbridled, the declaration of love marked by soaring lines, Leonard’s was at its most ardent and powerful as it cut through the thick orchestral accompaniment. The two showed incredible chemistry staring into one another’s eyes longingly. We really felt that she truly loved him, her tragedy as great as his in the opera’s final moments.
The supporting cast added color to the opera’s fascinating tapestry.
Supporting With Grace & Dignity
Where Grigolo sang with explosive passion, David Bizic showed elegance and polish as Albert. Massenet’s music for the character flies but never quite soars in that we appreciate its beauty without ever really being floored by it. Bizic, understanding this contrast, delivered some beautiful singing and an overall positive energy that allowed the viewer to empathize with Albert without truly loving him. Bizic’s awkward exchange with Leonard’s Charlotte allowed the viewer to better identify with Werther and Charlotte’s freedom around him, but at the same time we respected Bizic’s cavalier way of treating the fallen Werther, a smile always perched on his face.
Seeing himself betrayed, Bizic’s characterization took a massive turn in the third act, his stern and short behavior toward Charlotte shedding light on their problematic marriage, further highlighting how big of a failure Charlotte has become in her duty to her mother.
Anna Christy’s Sophie also provided a strong counterpoint to her sister’s somber arc. Always smiling and singing with brightness and bouncy phrasing, her Sophie was the personification of pure innocence.
The children’s chorus was great fun to witness, as was Maurizio Muraro as the Bailif, his one solo moment showing hints of loneliness that mirrored Werther’s own solitude.
In the pit conductor Edward Gardner gave a ferocious account of Massenet’s manic-depressive score. The thunderous opening chords from the Met Opera Orchestra shook the auditorium, giving the audience a sense of just how far Gardner was willing to go musically and dramatically and from that point he never let up. There was wildness in the playing that Met audiences have not been used to in what seems like a long time and yet Gardner never overpowered a single one of his singers. Delicate moments obtained the requisite subtlety, but the orchestra was always engaged, not one moment, no matter how quiet, getting overlooked as a vital part of the perfect whole.
As of this writing, there are still ample opportunities to get caught up in this visceral experience of sturm und drang, the music, performers and staging all working as part of cohesive whole. This “Werther” may not push you to the lengths that the original book did for its milieu, but you will be shaken emotionally.