Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl is betrothed to another. Boy is devastated. For this basic plotline—drawn from a widely popular novel by Goethe—French composer Jules Massenet created a score for “Werther” overflowing with passionate melodies that tug at listeners’ heartstrings. The final new production of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013-2014 season, “Werther” receives a sophisticated staging by English director Richard Eyre and features superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
The opera opens on a warm summer day while the recently widowed Bailiff rehearses his children in an untimely Christmas carol. But his eldest daughter, Charlotte, is the true character of importance. The graceful maiden arouses the affections of the young poet, Werther. His love cannot be reciprocated, though, for Charlotte is already engaged to another man. For the remainder of the opera, the forlorn protagonist must wrestle with his intense feelings and ultimately decide whether this tortured existence is worth living.
Although undeniably a tenor, Kaufmann’s voice has a much darker hue than that of singers often cast in the title role. This burnished timbre is a nice fit for the character’s anguished outbursts, but Kaufmann also manages to sing with masterful delicacy. Early on, his high notes sound slightly forced, but by the famous “Pourquoi me réveiller,” the tenor is at his best. And the final duets between Werther and Charlotte are absolutely riveting.
French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch makes an accomplished debut as Charlotte, the poised object of Werther’s unrequited love. Koch sings consistently well throughout the evening, bringing pure, rich tone to both impactful top notes and impassioned lyricism. Furthermore, Koch is an emotive actress, successfully presenting her character’s struggle between familial duty and her heart’s true desire.
Lisette Oropesa’s radiant soprano is well suited for the role of Sophie, Charlotte’s exuberant younger sister, and David Biži sings with a robust baritone as Albert, Charlotte’s devoted husband. Jonathan Summers’ voice definitely shows signs of age, though this was less of a problem for his role as the patriarch, Bailiff.
Continuing a season of superior presentations, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra delivers another skilled performance. Maestro Alain Altinoglu draws refined color and waves of swelling beauty out of Massenet’s romantic music.
In his second production for the Met, Eyre and his creative team offer an elegant staging of this emotional piece. The director’s greatest success is his effectiveness as a storyteller. His direction is coherent without being stiff or unnatural, but he intelligently adds staging during orchestral interludes to fill in plot points. Similarly, the sets are visually striking without stealing focus from the onstage drama. Overall, it is a fairly conventional staging that still achieves modern perspective.
Massenet’s “Werther” isn’t too often performed on the Met’s stage, but it is a work packed with heat, and the new staging evokes all of that passion. For Columbia students looking to be swept away by gripping emotion, this is the opera for you.
“Werther” runs through March 15 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center Plaza. Tickets start at $20.