Massenet: Werther

Baden-Baden Festspielhaus

16 June 2009 4 stars

WertherHardly had the waves around the glittering performances of Robert Wilson's Freischütz settled down, when another great event promised to
fill the Festspielhaus to capacity.

Werther by Massenet was to be given in concert performances with Rolando Villazon and Elīna Garanča, to demonstrate again that truly extraordinary stage chemistry that Villazon has been able to create between his singing partners, who beyond superb qualities as singers can also act credibly, and are also blessed with exceptionally attractive stage presence. Villazon seems to have excelled in roles that need to portray despair and agony. When he had to cancel his appearences for the rest of the year, his replacement by Stefano Secco as Werther disappointed many potentional patrons.

They need not have been disappointed. Stefano Secco, while somewhat underendowed in those superficial benchmarks that help a Jonas Kaufmann or a Juan Diego Florez to add another glamorous layer to their performances, impressed me by his earnest identifying with the role's exaltations, his passionate delivery, musicality and without stage paraphernalia to assist him, being a creditable partner to Elīna Garanča so deservedly basking in instantly radiating admiration from audiences. He already replaced Villazon in the Staatsoper in Vienna, and will sing the role shortly in Frankfurt.

WertherFor me, Elīna Garanča cannot do wrong in any role she adds to her repertoire. She has a thrilling voice at all her extensive levels, with no wobble when allowed to soar, a sure instinct for superb phrasing and all this delivered as coming truly from some inner reserve. Her acting relies on minutely carved gestures. Turning away her head, crossing her arms in a defensive gesture, a proud lifting of her chin in defiance, an erotically charged glance, all show subtle acting generated from inside.

Few operas of great beauty are so suitable for concert performances as Werther. Composed only a few years after Onegin, it is based on a similar subject, but without offering so many opportunities for surrounding it with such a credible stage adaptation of an original literary work, as Tchaikovsky succeeded in finding.

On hearing the seldom played overture of truly symphonic dimensions one is immediately struck by how Massenet, a superb melodist, must have been influenced by Tchaikovsky's orchestral and symphonic concepts. Even in its brilliant orchestration, this work carries the hallmark of an affinity between the two composers, however their character may have been so fundamentally different.

WertherDespair and gloom for Massenet, leading a stable and conventionally happy existence, had to be contrived in musical terms, where Tchaikowsky seems to have left traces of blood even on his more lighthearted works.
The first act is a poor effort to give a framework to the fatal meeting of Werther and Charlotte. It does not help at all to create a musically supported foundation to Werther's overwhelming and instant infatuation, answered willingly by Charlotte but only within the narrow limits of her dutiful dedication to her family responsibilities. The action set in a spuriously jolly family scene with Charlotte's little brood of sisters and brothers rehearsing Christmas carols, is a poor background for carrying the seeds of tragic infatuations. The Petit Chanteurs de Strassbourg sang their complex carols with absolute precision and charm.

The music gets wings only in the second act, with some finely crafted arias, in which Ludovic Tezier, a very handsome French baritone, as Charlotte's narrowminded and jelous husband could also prove how carefully the cast was selected. The two final acts contain the finest and most genuinely dramatic scenes in all Massenet's large operatic euvre, much of which is gathering dust. Here, Bertrand de Billy, a French conductor with impressive command over a fine orchestra , created in 1983 by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and becoming one of the most celebrated ones not only in the performance of the standard French repertoire, but in producing superb recordings of many forgotten masterpieces, drove inexorably to more and more exalted and dramatic scenes between Charlotte and Werther. A wonderful violin solo beautifully rendered, reminded one of Massenet's evergreen 'Meditation' from his Thais.

WertherWith an absolute minimum of theatrical gestures, Garanča and Secco could, by sheer musicality and splendour of delivery, made one almost relieved that we have been spared the contrived theatricalities of a stage presentation. Emotions so deeply felt and turned into a flood of beautiful sounds do not need minimalist gesturing and computer-controlled lighting orgies. It is odd that the last few minutes of both Onegin and Werther seem to show that their composers ran out of final reserves to resolve the accumulated despair in a more compositionally impressive way than Werther quickly dying and Onegin collapsing behind a rapidly descending curtain to the sound of a few conventionally doomladen, brass-supported chords.

This was another well organized and presented concert performance of opera at the highest level.

By Francis Shelton

Photo credits: Andrea Kremper

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