Opéra de Monte-Carlo 2021-22 Review: Werther

Jean-François Borras Headlines a Confused & Ultimately Unconvincing Staging

By Robert Adelson & Jacqueline Letzter

On February 20, the curtain of the Salle Garnier at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo rose to inaugurate Jean-Louis Grinda’s new staging of Massenet’s “Werther,” co-produced by the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía in Valencia, where it received its initial performances in 2017.

Just as any Wagnerian pilgrimage naturally leads to the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, every fervent admirer of Massenet dreams of hearing his operas at the Salle Garnier of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Massenet had a privileged relationship with the opera house, thanks to the support of its legendary director Raoul Gunsbourg (1860-1955), who gave premiere performances of seven of Massenet’s last ten operas at the theatre. Since 1912, a bust of Massenet has stood next to one of the theatre’s entrance, and when the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo performs one of his operas today, one can imagine the continuity of a tradition passed down from generation to generation.

Grinda’s staging of Massenet’s 1892 masterpiece begins at the end: after Werther shot himself. The rest of the opera consists of Werther reviewing in his dying moments the sequence of events that led to his suicide, accompanied by a silent white angel. During the opening orchestral prelude, the audience sees a giant gilt-framed mirror, apparently symbolizing the separation between life and death. The mirror is then shattered, and the frame of the broken mirror remains onstage throughout the entire opera. Werther and Charlotte constantly hover around it – with Werther passing through it as he moves between his deathbed imagination and the actual events of the story.

Beginning an opera with the protagonist’s death in order to set up the opera’s action as a sort of flashback is a commonly used technique. For example, in recent years, numerous productions of “La Traviata” (such as those by Michael Mayer, Lorenzo Amato, and Giorgio Gallione) take precisely this approach. But Grinda’s premise is not simply a way of framing the action, which is then allowed to proceed as usual. Werther, his white shirt bloodied from his gunshot wound, wanders around the stage throughout the entire opera, crossing through the frame of the broken mirror, alternatively engaging with the other characters or observing them in silence. All the action is therefore seen through Werther’s eyes. Because they are supposed to be visions of the mind, the sets and costumes are understated, vaguely evoking a nineteenth-century setting.

Werther’s constant presence on stage created frequent dissonances with the libretto and the score, rendering meaningless the key periods of his absence in the story. For example, in the third act, when Werther returns after his three-month exile, Charlotte exclaims “Ciel! Werther!” (“Heavens! Werther!”) amidst fortissimo interjections in the orchestra. But in Grinda’s staging, Werther is on stage from the start of the act, pacing around while observing Charlotte.

A Singularly Unromantic Werther

What was most surprising and disappointing about the production was the total lack of passion in the interaction between Werther and Charlotte. The erotic spark that binds the tragic lovers is the energy that moves the opera forward. Inexplicably, in Grinda’s staging Werther and Charlotte barely seem to notice each other at first, blatantly contradicting Charlotte’s later recollection of their meeting: “du jour même où tu parus devant mes yeux…j’ai senti qu’une chaîne impossible à briser, nous liait tous les deux!”(“the same day you appeared before my eyes … I felt that a chain impossible to break, bound us to each other!”)

In Massenet’s opera, everything depends on the passion between Werther and Charlotte; without it, the work turns into a sappy sentimental tale. All the lighter characters that Massenet and his librettists added to Goethe’s original (the Bailli, the children, Schmidt and Johann, Sophie) only make sense when they create a contrast with the dark intensity of the Werther-Charlotte-Albert triangle.

The almost entirely Francophone cast was led by tenor Jean-François Borras in the title role. Perhaps due to the constraints imposed by the staging, he was unable to communicate the more melancholy, tempestuous, and passionate dimensions of his character. Throughout much of the opera he meandered around the stage with a bemused smile and in the more serious scenes, his acting was reduced to hand wringing and pained looks.

In fact, Borras was at his best when his character’s status as an imagined dying soul allowed him to simply stand before the audience and deliver his arias as set pieces, almost as in a concert performance, as in the famous “Pourquoi me réveiller” (“Why wake me up”) in Act three. His versatile voice was impressive in powerful passages such as “Un autre est son époux!” (“Another is her husband!”) in Act one which ends on an octave descent from a high A flat, which is often obscured by the orchestra playing fortissimo, but which Borras rendered crystal clear. Similarly, his high B on the climax “Appelle moi” (“Call me”) rang out with a silvery yet full tone, without any hint of edginess. His voice is not only impressive in such virile moments; in his first exchanges with Albert, he displayed a remarkable control in the pianississimo phrases “ce sera ma part de bonheur sur la terre” (“it will be my share of happiness on the earth”).

The role of Charlotte was sung by mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac, whose stiff acting and general lack of timbral variety was a disappointment. In Grinda’s conception of the opera, Charlotte is a repressed bourgeoise and in the opening scenes one even had difficulty distinguishing her carefree superficiality from that of her sister Sophie. In Act three where Charlotte expresses her inner torments about having rejected Werther, the staging invites d’Oustrac to enact a full-blown mad scene that seems incongruous with her previous coldness, but in fact, emphasizes the character’s repressed sexuality. Giving the staging this feminist dimension is relevant, however, it makes it even more difficult to believe in the passion between the two characters, which is central to appreciating Massenet’s music. The staging concept clearly held d’Oustrac back vocally, so when in the third act she was finally allowed to express herself more effusively, her singing was highly effective, as in her aria “Va! laisse couler mes larmes” (“Go! let my tears flow”).

Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapointe was a superb Albert. Lapointe sang with a rich timbre, a beautiful legato, impeccable diction, and a refreshingly natural approach to acting.

Le Bailli was sung by baritone Marc Barrard, who gave a somewhat uneven performance, with many of his lines inaudible when he faced the rear of the stage. The Bailli’s pair of jovial drinking friends, Schmidt and Johann, were sung respectively by tenor Reinaldo Macias and baritone Philippe Ermelier. Their voices were poorly matched, and Macias had difficulty projecting even in the intimate space of the Salle Garnier. Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie was sung by soprano Jennifer Courcier, who executed the Act three aria “Ah! le rire est beni” with great agility.

Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási coaxed some luscious string playing from the musicians of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, notably in the orchestral preludes to Acts three and four. His approach to the quieter moments was at times prosaic; the famous “Clair de lune” music at the close of the first act was just a bit too loud to be truly romantic.

A Comedy of Errors

Any musical or dramatic performance can be marred by mishaps, and in opera the risk is exponentially greater, considering the sheer number of people involved. This opening performance, however, saw one accident after another, which was surprising for a production that has had five years since the 2017 Valencia performances to work out rough edges.

Problems began in the children’s chorus in Act one when a false entry on the word “Merci” destabilized the scene; and this was unfortunately not in the opening part of the scene, when the children are supposed to sing poorly.

Then throughout Acts one and two, the stage sets creaked obtrusively. This distracting noise returned at the worst possible moment after Werther posed his enigmatic question “Pourquoi trembler devant la mort? devant la nôtre?” (Why tremble before death? in front of ours?) and when he sang “On lève le rideau … puis on passe de l’autre côté” (We raise the curtain …then we go on the other side).

The most embarrassing moment came at the opening of the fourth and final Act. During the orchestra interlude, when Werther stepped behind the huge vertical screen that filled the interior of the mirror frame and raised the pistol to kill himself, the screen flashed to the setup page of the software the opera house uses to project video images. For several minutes—that felt like an eternity—all the audience saw was a menu with the phrases like “file browser” and “widget designer.” And this at a moment of utmost tension in the opera, when the protagonist is taking his own life and the orchestra is building waves of passionate music. One was left wondering why a curtain could not simply have been drawn to put an end to this humiliating moment.

Jean-Louis Grinda has staged many fine productions over the last fifteen years at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, but this “Werther” is not one of the most memorable. The strained and artificial directorial approach, lackluster acting, and serial mishaps became serious obstacles to appreciating Massenet’s opera. Thankfully, he has one more staging before bidding adieu as Director of the theater – a new production of Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust” in November 2022.


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