Among the quintessential figures of Western culture, there is that of the Romantic poet. You know the one: the dark, brooding, dreaming figure, existing on a plane beyond mere mortals as he writes poems in the midst of spiritual ecstasies and is consumed by the fires of his passions. In the late nineteenth century, Romanticism as a literary movement rejected the reason of the Enlightenment for the values of emotion, and in doing so, produced the figure that’s been a staple of the Western imagination since. And there is, perhaps, no more quintessential incarnation of that figure than Werther, the protagonist of Goethe’s novel (yes, that Goethe who also wrote Faust).
When it was published in the late eighteenth century, The Sorrows of Young Werther spurred quite an obsession. The figure of the young dreamer, desperately in love with Charlotte – a woman he can never have, tragically married to another man, until his love for her leads him to take his own life – led to young men dressing as their hero and also, reportedly, killing themselves in imitation of their beloved character’s tragic end. A century later, Massenet transformed the tragic, sentimental novel into a gorgeous opera, its music soaring and melancholy, joyful and nostalgic, but most of all, Romantic.
Now the Metropolitan Opera has yet again staged this piece, the latest in its series of Live in HD broadcasts of operas to theatres the world over. As is their habit – the Metropolitan Opera has made a habit of creating impeccable productions,–this staging is outstanding, even by the standards of the self-proclaimed (and yet quite accurate) best opera house in the world.
The latest production is directed by Richard Eyre and designed by Rob Howell, and it does that most important thing: it captures more than a sequence of events. It captures its essence. This production goes far beyond placing a narrative onto a set of wooden planks, and far beyond the technical perfection of its musical performance – it casts a spell that extends beyond the stage itself into the auditorium, coaxing the audience into a deeply atmospheric, spellbinding land of lyrical sorrow, romance, and romanticism.
This staging is as Romantic (with that capital R) as it should be – a sort of melancholy, spellbinding, dark and Romantic fairy tale. Through a combination of the Metropolitan Opera’s vast resources, its endless ingenuity, and the opportunities offered by a broadcast into theatres, this opera comes alive as so much more than the sum of its parts.
From the very beginning, the viewer is drawn into this charming web. It is the nature of a Live in HD broadcast that, upon entering the movie theatre, the viewer is coaxed into an operatic mood by the sounds of the tuning orchestra and the Met’s public. Soon, that all quiets as Massenet’s beautiful overture begins to play to a background of melancholy views of woods and trees. Through some sort of stage magic, the technical aspects of which I don’t understand and don’t need to – nature beckons in a way that appears entirely three-dimensional, evoking the charm of that infinitely mysterious Nature that is a hallmark of the Romantic movement.
And yet here, too, there’s also a small addition, one of many little perfections added to the staging. It’s a small scene, performed in the corner of the stage, of the death of Charlotte’s mother – an almost insignificant little addition, and yet it is this death, and the dying woman’s words to her daughter, that set in motion the events of the entire opera, forcing Charlotte to marry a man other than Werther. It’s little touches like this that, throughout, add charm to an already charming opera and flesh out an otherwise simple tale.
This melancholy opening, watched over by the statue of a weeping mother, opens into a joyous and light-hearted first scene, and it is a hallmark of this production that it so seamlessly transforms from sadness to joy, subtly suggesting at the gravity of death even in the lightheartedness of its very first scenes.
But the long-awaited moment is the entrance of Werther. Sung by Jonas Kaufmann, one of the world’s premier tenors, the role couldn’t be better cast. He makes his way onto the stage, a dark-haired, somber poet, a coat trailing behind him like a pair of dark wings, almost weighing him down with the depth and the darkness of his emotions. Kaufmann has it all, quite literally: a German with an intimate knowledge of the source text, he also has that Romantic physique that makes him a perfect incarnation of the brooding poet, and, most of all, a voice to die for.
Massenet’s opera is an opera of versatility – ranging from lighthearted Christmas caroling to melancholy preludes to sweeping arias and gorgeous waltzes, and Kaufmann, as Werther, has all that versatility, both vocally and visually. There is the force of his emotion in the way his voice fills the Metropolitan opera and theatres everywhere, and there is the depth of his grief and his melancholy as he sings the subtlest of notes, the gentleness of his love in his softer notes and the spiritual ecstasies of that very same love as he soars away on the wings of music. He sings with strength and with nuance, with force and with subtlety, until one wonders how poor Charlotte has managed not to succumb to his charms. Unsurprisingly, his rendition of Werther’s signature aria, “Pourquoi me reveiller,” garnered an obscene amount of well-deserved applause.
Not only does Kaufmann sing, he also acts. It would have been so simply to write Werther off as a one-sided figure, so much in love that it’s more frustrating than compelling. But Kaufmann incarnates a multi-faceted personality: one minute he’s a hopeful, lovestruck youth, the next a conflicted adult, unsure of the nature of his passions, the next a dark and menacing figure, his entrance onto the stage preceded by notes equally menacing. In all of that, he’s believable, until the pathetic figure who takes his own life because he just can’t get over his crush becomes a tragic hero, the depth of his love and his despair patently tangible.
The staging accompanies Kaufmann all throughout the opera in the spells that he so effortlessly weaves. In scenes that add stage magic to musical magic, the scenery shifts and the projected imagery of the background moves, creating a magical vertigo that, rather than producing disorientation, gives the entire proceeding an enchanting, ethereal quality, as if the entire story is taken place in a different land, constructed out of emotions rather than out of pieces of reality. In this aspect, one particular addition made by Eyre and Howell stands out: the ball that is mentioned at the end of the first act, and attended by the characters, is technically not in the libretto. They add it, and this bold venture pays off well: there’s darkness and surreal beauty in the way the charismatic pair of Werther and Charlotte give way to dancing silhouettes that spin away to the tune of Massenet’s music.
Though Kaufmann’s Werther is doubtlessly the figurehead of the story – both in title and in deed, with the tenor’s charismatic presence, his beloved Charlotte is also splendidly incarnated by Sophie Koch. The French mezzo-soprano has paired with Kaufmann before in performing this very role, and their chemistry shows. She’s familiar with the character, and her clear, charmingly-executed notes provide a perfect contrast to Kaufmann’s strong voice. Similarly, it is her down-to-earth character that desperately tries to balance Werther’s dreamy nature, as she herself desperately seeks for the balance between love and duty, dream and reality.
But alas, Charlotte’s reason cannot save Werther from his dreams and his ecstasies, and it is in her arms that he dies, after – as is typical for opera – spending a quarter of an hour both singing and dying. I’ll suspend my disbelief, though, because the finale is as spectacular as the rest of the opera.
Even if the audio goes out in the last 7 minutes.
This unfortunate happenstance is, I must admit, the first time anything like this occurred in my many years of attending Live in HD performances. According to the Metropolitan Opera, the satellite carrying the audio feed had a technical difficulty – an issue they assure will be resolved in time for the encore on March 19th. Though disappointing, as it rather broke the experience, there is the bright side that the Met put the entire final scene up on their website, available for anyone who wants a taste of the beautiful performance. And, this technical happenstance aside, it no way reflects on the quality of the opera itself, or the finale, which is as impeccably staged as the rest of the opera.
A bonus of these Live in HD broadcasts is also the backstage look they allow before the performance and during the intermission; while Met attendees mingle in the lobby or have the most expensive chocolate cakes of their lives in the Grand Tier restaurant, the viewer sitting in their good old movie theatre gets taken backstage, as the host of the event chats with the main singers and producers behind the production. Werther’s host was not a big name star such as Fleming and Voigt, and certainly she overdid the questions – making one pity the poor stars who, after their renditions of such perfect arias, also had to answer these interrogations – but each star turned out to be charming and witty nevertheless. Kaufmann, in particular, jokingly answered questions about Werther before flashing a few of his charming smiles at the audiences. Viewers also got a look at Anna Hartig and Vittorio Grigolo practicing for an upcoming La Boheme, and a few general views of the stage being set up from behind the curtain.
The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD endeavor is, I believe, one of the greatest advancements in opera in recent days, bringing opera everywhere, and most importantly, in affordable ways. Broadcast to sixty-six countries, each transmission is shown in high definition, capturing every single nuance of each actor’s expression and voice. It allows those without local opera houses or the funds to attend them to experience the beauty and the feeling of opera. Of course, nothing replaces that hallowed building, the Lincoln Center, which houses the Met, but the Live in HD series is a close second, and it has its own perks.
The encore of Werther will be broadcast to theatres worldwide at 6:30pm on March 19th; check the Met’s website or your local movie theatres for tickets and availability.