Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Massenet’s Stab at Sturm und Drang

Massenet’s Werther
Metropolitan Opera
February 20, 2017

Goethe's romantic hero gets a Massenet make over
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Werther is one of those operas that I always want to like more than I eventually do. Based on Goethe’s slender little epistolary novel that took the world by storm when it first appeared, Massenet’s opera is just too laden with humdrum moments of musical fluff to really feel like it’s worth my while. The composer takes ages to set the quotidian tone of each scene and the big orchestral flourishes, which he primarily reserves for Werther’s emotional outpourings, as too few and far between. The rest of the story points are just not propped up in any satisfactory way.

The sorrows of the young poet
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Seeing so many operas both in the mainstream repertory as well as the occasional rarity, revival or outlier really leads one to an appreciation of what makes an opera a canonical masterpiece. And, at least for me, it comes down to dynamic, multi-layered dramatic tensions couple, of course, coupled with tight, wonderful music (think Norma, for example). In the case of Werther, it’s just not there. The main drama here is that Werther loves Charlotte who is too stuck up to love him back and as a result he kills himself. Everything else is mostly filler. The music has a couple of terrific moments but otherwise it is rather unexciting. In those moments when the orchestra rises to sweep the eponymous hero off his feet into some sturm und drang, the tenor does find a little fodder to feed his fire and ours.

What brought us back to revisit the opera this time was the opportunity to see what the hit tenor Vittorio Grigolo would do with the role. And he certainly made for an ardent lover. He played the archetypal tragic romantic hero as an exuberant madman of sorts, the bright flame that burns itself out. Fast.

An ardent lover on the prowl
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The pleasure of watching Grigolo perform is partly the warmth of his instrument that is often let to wander off the leash a little bit, which is what lends him an air of the dangerous or the unpredictable. It is expressive and so very Italian. And at the same time he often comes off as a bit of an over-wrought caricature of a romantic hero, which is perhaps both a limitation but also a part of his charm. On the one hand you cannot take him too seriously, but on the other Grigolo is terribly endearing because he is, in his over the top divo way, so in character.

In any case, he threw himself into the role of the tormented unrequited lover with a Neapolitan flair, devouring all of that male emoting like a drama king. Grigolo’s gripping breakdown in Albert’s study was forcefully gut wrenching. He brought an almost violent physicality to the scene that really left everyone involved shaken, including the audience.

The fiery little tenor was all uncontainable passion
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
As per her usual, Isabel Leonard struck a handsome figure on stage, though to my ear she lacked in volume singing Massenet’s French score. I don’t always find that to be the case with her. Regardless, she emoted beautifully, if regally, in her big moment in Act III. This is where the female lead gets to have her moment in the moody spotlight of the opera. She also carried the protracted death scene in Act IV with sentiment and conviction. When she picks up the pistol and pauses after Werther definitively gives up the ghost, you really are left wondering, just before the curtain drops, “Is she going to do it?”

Charlotte is all composure and restraint
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
At our last outing with this opera back in 2014, when the production debuted, Jonas Kaufmann sang Massenet’s tragic hero. Being one of the few times he actually showed up to sing on a night that I had tickets to see him, I recall being a little underwhelmed by his lack of volume and the underwhelming power of his voice. Though dramatically as an actor he was riveting, from all the videos I have seen of him in action I had expected his voice to be more compelling. Instead it hardly projected from the stage.

In Kaufmann’s hands the young poet is ostensibly more disturbed from the start. He wears his destiny on his person. It’s in his demeanor, the look in his eye, the way he walks and it’s in the way Kaufmann sings, the consummate solipsist, all closed up in himself. From the moment he steps onto the stage you are aware of the fact that this probably is someone capable of suicide. With Grigolo, who is more of a wild card, you really don’t know what it would take for some so ardently passionate to commit such an extreme act of aggression against his own person.

Indoor space rights the angles of the great outdoors
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera 
The sets of the “new” production are quite stunning. Rob Howell’s designs incorporate a brilliant use of geometric architectural elements that either came into alignment or separated and went slightly askew to allow the natural world to break into the sphere of the civilized world. It nicely mirrors the eruption of the uncontainable passion of full-blown German romanticism into the rational order of enlightenment society. It is the Dionysian that encroaches on the Apollonian. All of the scenes in nature are pleasantly catawampus whereas those that play out indoors are dominated by the rationality of straight lines – all the angles get righted.

The poet goes down in a redemptive blaze of storm and stress
Photo credit: Ian Douglas
And so the pieces of the set slide apart and come together from one scene to the next until the space collapses into the claustrophobic bohemian apartment of the tortured poet. In the final scene that’s where we end up. As we magically zoom into his sad little room, the relatively simple stagecraft effects are mesmerizing. Werther is like a caged animal, restless, unsure where to turn, consumed by his own emotions. Here, momentarily, he is all storm and stress. The way the whole thing is orchestrated visually is uttering ravishing of all of the senses. Charlotte barges in on him once the shot has been fired. As the children’s voices chime like tinny bells of redemption in through the window singing their signature carol, in her embrace at last, he slowly expires. Ultimate defeat has never seemed so redeeming.

– Lui & Lei

The man who made suicide a "thing"
Photo credit: Marty Sohl

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