Massenet’s Werther represents a precarious fusion of flashy prose and perfumed poetry. The new production at the Met, which opened on Tuesday, pays more attention to the former than the latter.
Richard Eyre’s relatively conservative staging and Rob Howell’s picturesque designs betray some odd choices. The curtain rises, prematurely, on mime episodes depicting the death and funeral of the heroine’s mother, neither reflected in the score. The exposition reveals a surreal landscape adorned with a bridge that goes nowhere. The scene is framed by five false proscenium arches, perspectives askew. Wendall Harrington’s video projections decorate the initial narrative, then sadly disappear. The finale unfolds within a forward-sliding box.
The action, originally set in the late 18th century, is advanced a hundred years or more – reasons unclear. The simple Haus-Fräulein Charlotte becomes a sophisticated flirt who models a chic evening gown. At the end, after the long-suffering protagonist commits the slowest of suicides, she declares her belated love, pointing a pistol to her pretty head as the curtain mercifully falls. Although inauthentic, such innovations would not be terribly disturbing if the production lent equal stress to the introspective elements in the opera. Massenet, after all, was unabashedly sentimental. Eyre & Co. seem embarrassed by any threat of aesthetic nostalgia.
In the pit, Alain Altinoglu, the gutsy conductor, reinforces similar priorities. Apart from some star-tenor indulgences, he favours brisk tempos, generous decibels and rousing climaxes. Forget period sensitivity. Forget elegance.
The obvious raison d’être for the endeavour was Jonas Kaufmann, who pined nobly in the title role and rang the rafters neatly and toughly, perhaps more often than absolutely necessary. He also floated exquisite pianissimos and breathtaking diminuendos when the spirit moved him. With Elīna Garanča on maternity leave, Sophie Koch brought aching intensity to the miseries of Charlotte and sang with arching power, occasional rough edges notwithstanding. David Bižic nearly turned innocent Albert into a blustery buffo, but Lisette Oropesa focused giddy sympathy as Sophie, the resident quasi-soubrette.
In all, this Werther favoured dramatic bravado over lyrical grace. But only a churl would complain. The first-nighters loved it clap-happily.