This is another updated, or modernized, take on a classic opera. Producers, probably as much for economic as for artistic reasons, are turning more and more to the practice of moving an opera's setting to a modern or more modern period. This production transplants the setting of Massenet's Goethe-inspired story from the 1770s to the 1950s. It couldn't be placed further into the 20th century – much less into the 21st – owing to the strict social mores that are essential to the story: Charlotte can't have an affair with Werther, her true love, because she is married to Albert – and she would never consider divorcing him.
Sets are minimal here, with a huge tree ever-present on the stage, a tree that fulfills several symbolic functions according to the stage director, Andrei Serban. It is supposed draw our attention to the characters here, away from the scenery; also it represents the small town where the story takes place, and the changes in its foliage alert us to changes in time. If this business with the tree sounds a little ridiculous to you, well, I sympathize. Yet, despite the tree and otherwise barren scenery, I can't say the production doesn't work. In fact, it works quite well, mainly because of the characters – and how they are portrayed. (Maybe that tree does work, after all!)
The sets might generate controversy, but the singing won't. Marcelo Álvarez and Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča are utterly splendid here, both musically and dramatically. I don't know if I have ever heard Álvarez sing better: try, as just one example, his Act III Toute mon âme est là! to sample his passionate artistry. Elīna Garanča is just as compelling a performer here: her dark Va! Laisse couler mes larmes, from the same act, is powerfully moving and her acting skills throughout are totally convincing. The rest of the cast is good, too, but when an opera is so dominated by two characters – and dominated so brilliantly – it's hard to etch out a niche in the spotlight.
Philippe Jordan, who was about thirty when this was recorded in February, 2005, leads the orchestra with a keen sense for drama, fully catching the growing sense of desperation in this brilliant score. The Vienna players are with him all the way, and the sound reproduction is clear and powerful. Werther is probably Massenet's finest work and surely one of the greatest operas from the late-19th century. This DVD, despite the controversial production aspects I noted, is a brilliant account of this masterpiece. Strongly recommended.
Copyright © 2006, Robert Cummings