Teatro alla Scala 2023-24 Review: Werther

Alain Altinoglu, Benjamin Bernheim & Victoria Karkacheva Weave a Musical Tapestry of Pure Magic

By Jennifer Pyron
(Photo credit: Brescia/Amisano – Teatro alla Scala)

The Teatro alla Scala presented a new production of Jules Massenet’s “Werther,” with libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann, in co-production with Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on June 19th, 2024 to an eager audience ready to experience tenor Benjamin Bernheim in the titular role.

The last time “Werther” was presented at Teatro alla Scala was in 1980, featuring Alfredo Kraus as Werther and Elena Obraztsova as Charlotte, with a steady lead up of other performances in years past from 1895 through 1976. Needless to say, tonight’s production for this season was a big to-do not only because this opera is gripping in its own right and has not been presented at La Scala in 44 years, but also because of Benjamin Bernheim.

Bernheim & Altinoglu Prove Worthy of Werther

The voice of Werther determines the entire production of this opera’s success, however, the music of “Werther” is what makes this success possible, and it all begins with the conductor. Alain Altinoglu’s reputation as an innovative game-changer in the conducting world precedes him. He is the Director of Music of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels since 2015, Chief Conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt, and Artistic Director of the International Festival of Colmar. His leadership is making history at the moment and his work at the podium is guiding his way. 

Massenet’s “Werther” is excruciatingly tender in its delivery and designed to envelope listeners immediately in an atmosphere of pure hope for love’s resolve. This vein of catalytic expression initiates from the heart of the conductor, permeating every single note, instrument, and intention all throughout. There is no breath separate from supporting where this is all going, no matter the high or dramatic low. In knowing this reality, there is a decision the lead tenor in the role of Werther has to make – to live or to die while waiting for love’s resolve. 

Benjamin Bernheim is no ordinary tenor, but does consider himself to be an ordinary human being. In fact, his ability to remain grounded and steadfast in self-awareness has catapulted his career to extraordinary heights – and he is still on the rise. Typically when singing the role of Werther, tenors use their voice to over-exaggerate their remorse as a love-scorned victim of unfortunate circumstances. This overplay serves against the lightness and ethereal presence that Werther calls for, as a symbol of hope’s lament, and it takes guttural enrichment to prove otherwise – and this is exactly how Bernheim succeeded. 

Werther’s first aria, “Alors c’est bien ici,” begins with one of the most gorgeous cello entrances in any opera. The unfurling of this instrument’s beauty then collapses into the rising swell of the violin in response. Already there is love being made and had in this way, so when Werther elicits his first note in this atmosphere it better be full of love – and it was. Bernheim exuded a natural glow when entering onto the stage and singing this aria. His eyes glittered in the soft light that fell upon his body as he looked into the warmth of Charlotte’s house, ardently hoping to see her. His voice cascaded into Teatro alla Scala’s hall with exuberant exaltation in excitement just to be there, closer to her and in complete surrender to love. Already Bernheim’s Werther had died to be reborn, and to live in only love’s grace. This level of alignment goes deeper than what Massenet can offer through his music though, and so it is important to acknowledge Bernheim’s alignment as a pillar of serenity. Come what may, there was already a feeling of detachment from love’s emotional bind that Bernheim used in his favor, and it seemed this feeling of peace would continue to grow.

Altinoglu led the orchestra with delight and wonder in support of Bernheim’s trajectory. I watched as his face lit up in recognition of his sweet tenor taking listeners into another realm of experience all together. Altinoglu many times handed the way to Bernheim’s voice, making it all about the music and all about what matters most – the love and joy of singing. Bernheim’s following aria, “Je ne sais si je veille,” was a continuation worthy of Werther’s delight. Both Altinoglu and Bernheim were at play here in creating this magical moment together. For me, watching a conductor and singer in one of the world’s most critical opera stages take the time to realize Massenet’s music in full bliss together took my breath away. Moments like this are what opera was made for and must continue to be.

Once this opening was steady on its path, I watched as the audience relaxed into love’s oblivion and awaited Charlotte’s arrival.

“Pourquoi me reveiller” was absolutely the most remarkable moment of the night as Bernheim lifted his soul into La Scala’s hall and showcased exactly how his crystalline vocals can ignite any listener’s heart. His delivery was that of a master of his craft, illuminating the beauty of Massenet’s music and the simplicity of exquisite vocal technique. The crowd roared in congratulations at the end and Bernheim’s face remained stoic in Werther’s determined quest. Nothing compares to what one might have felt as the audience cheered, sounding far and wide in celebration of Bernheim and the presence of such genius. Bravissimo!

Karkacheva’s Soul Full of Light

Charlotte is the reflection of Werther’s gaze. Her voice mirrors this recognition based on the purity of its source. In other words, mezzo-soprano Victoria Karkacheva as Charlotte was at the mercy of where Benjamin Bernheim as Werther was leading her. And this is a beautiful thing. Not once did Karkacheva doubt Bernheim’s tenderness or timid torment, instead her voice brought forth the very life force he summoned through the mysterious veil that is music’s powerful elixir. Karkacheva relished in “Il faut nous séparer” with Bernheim as he confessed his love for her. Although her announcement at the end proved fate otherwise, there was a sincerity to Karkacheva’s voice that made her more transparent and relatable. Her promise to marry Albert did not deter her from feeling her heart’s natural awakening to Werther’s confession. And this could very much be felt, planting a seed of hope in any listener no matter how many times they’ve seen this opera and know its brutal ending. All in all, chemistry was in the air!

Karkacheva’s mezzo provided necessary roots to carry Bernheim’s tenor full of light into La Scala’s hall. The pair were in sync every note of the way especially during “Mais vous ne savez rien.” Charlotte’s arias “Hélas oui mes enfants” and “O Charlotte ange du devoir” ushered in waves of brilliance as her mezzo blossomed. Her palette of vocal colors were profoundly polished and garnered no resistance to their joy in delivery. Everything Karkacheva sang rang true and honest in the loving presence of Bernheim. These open arms made this production feel surprisingly new and timeless. A breath of fresh air filled the lungs of Massenet’s score as it pulsated anew.

Minimal Design Invites Maximum Pleasure

Christof Loy’s production, designed by Johannes Leiacker and lighting designer Roland Edrich, invited the audience to focus on the music and natural chemistry unfolding among the cast. The simple changes happening behind a double sliding door that opened and closed, revealing the season’s of Werther’s journey through love, made it easy for the audience to digest and connect with the symbolism at hand. Honestly, there was no space for maximalist efforts to even exist, and one could sense the entire creative team and cast were all on the same page.

The true beauty of this production’s design was in how it featured the voices interacting among each other with gentle lighting, soothing tones of color and the stunning artistry of costume designer Robby Duiveman’s perspective. Duiveman portrayed each character in a refined manner that kept the tone of “Werther” aligned and alive. Charlotte’s raspberry colored dress especially fit the display of emotions on the rise and hard fall. Her movements emulated language in their own way as she cascaded about with her dress levitating slightly above the stage floor. This production was seamless and truly appreciated by the audience. Bravo!

More Cast Highlights

Jean Sébastien Bou as Albert and Francesca Pia Vitale as Sophie had a particularly interesting interplay on stage. Bou’s voice and demeanor were exact and at times aggressive in his interpretation of Albert. His facial expressions projected a sense of urgency and threat to his ego that really added to the salaciousness of Albert’s character. At times, I was on the edge of my seat while watching him respond and react as Werther’s love grew brighter before his eyes and Charlotte’s heart opened wider in its vastness. Bou’s glory of the night came when he sat tormented in his chair while reading the love letters Werther had sent to Charlotte. His acting was supernatural as he seethed and wallowed in this banal act of uncovering secrets not meant for him to know about. But how could he not have seen this love becoming? Bou’s ability to stay present in each moment led one to maybe believe otherwise and give into the anger Albert must have felt, deserved to feel, had brought onto himself to resolve? It was an interesting and engaging discovery through Bou’s performance the entire night.

Francesca Pia Vitale’s voice echoed all sentiments of the night and her high notes sounded angelic in La Scala’s natural acoustics. The way she glides her voice up to its top register to then blossom back into her body of sound is something I want to experience live again and in much larger roles. There is an extreme amount of vocal precision and talent she uses to captivate her listeners, but this isn’t all she can do. Vitale had moments on stage where she wasn’t necessarily singing or moving that she still managed to actively participate in what was going on. Her body language and bouts of holding her head in her hands, writhing her face back and forth in her lustrous hair and turning her red lips into a pout or a smile were gorgeous. Vitale knows the power of minimal acting and maximal body language. She is an illustrious star on the fast rise.

Bass Armando Noguera as Le Bailli sounded confident and secure in his voice and role. He loved to command attention and join in the Christmas festivities. Tenor Rodolphe Briand as Schmidt was playful and charming as he sang and the children danced and ran about the stage singing Christmas carols. Baritone Enric Martínez-Castignani as Johann also fit perfectly into the mold of family fun and beautiful singing. Pierluigi D’Aloia as Bruhlmann portrayed his character as lighthearted and young, singing and acting with care to his cast mates. D’Aloia is a student of the Teatro alla Scala Academy. Elisa Verzier as Katchen was a perfect match for D’Aloia’s Bruhlmann as the pair exchanged romantic moments of playfulness. 

The children’s voices of the Coro di Voci Bianche dell’Accademia Teatro alla Scala were pure and bright as they sang about the coming of a new dawn on a new day, Christmas morning. Listening to them singing in the distance after Werther’s final act (I won’t spoil it by saying exactly what he does in this review in case you do not know yet) was a revelation. This moment reminded me of John Adams’s “El Niño” children’s chorus at the finale. This simple reminder that only hope remains amidst the suffering and disillusionments of this life completely fades, bringing one back to the purpose of all existence – the undying power of love’s resolve. 


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