The planet is full of bad news—jumbo jets disappearing, sovereign states getting nibbled away at, vanishing aquifers, rumbling earthquakes. We turn from these cataclysmic happenings, about which we can do nothing, and observe that modern technology has made it possible for us to jump in the car at dinner-time, drive for fifteen minutes, and watch a “live” performance by some of the world’s greatest musicians, beamed via satellite from the world’s greatest opera house, of a French opera written in the late nineteenth century based on a slim German book written in the late eighteenth century.
This, too, is the world we live in. A world of continuity, amplification, refinement, as experience is transformed into art and the art is subsequently recast, rethought, modified to suit a new sensibility.
The plot of Werther could hardly be simpler—unlike Il Travatore or Simon Boccenegra, for example. Charlotte’s mother has died, and she, along with her kid sister Sophie, is responsible for raising their four or five younger siblings. Her mother had expressed the wish that Charlotte marry the dependable and agreeable Albert, and Charlotte acquiesces, more to honor her mother than out of any deep-rooted affection. In fact, Charlotte is so deeply invested in her family life, which also includes her father, that the claims of personal passion don’t figure very prominently in her emotional landscape.
Then Werther shows up. He falls for Charlotte immediately, of course. He’s a handsome dreamer, a poet, a scribbler, rather than a Don Juan or a cad. Albert is away, perhaps fulfilling some military obligation, and Werther and Charlotte even go to a ball together! Sparks fly. Charlotte almost forgets herself in the darkness of the garden after the ball. But when push comes to shove, she makes her position very clear to the overly attentive Werther: she’s engaged. And she has no problem demanding that her tormented suitor leave town immediately, and stay away until Christmas.
The opera is now half over. Ninety minutes have gone by. (One of the great things about opera is that everything happens so slowly!) I didn’t mention the two local boozers—always looking for the next party—or how charming Charlotte’s sister Sophie (Lissette Oropesa) is.
But the performances of tenor Johann Kauffman (as Werther) and soprano Sophie Koch (as Charlotte) stand out. They maintain, in their features, bearing, and gestures, a confused erotic tension that comes through loud and clear in big screen HD close-ups.
The singing is also very good.
And in the second act it gets better, as Charlotte begins to realize how much she misses Werther, and begins to wonder, rereading his letters, whether he’s contemplating suicide. She sings the celebrated aria "Werther! Qui m'aurait dit /Ces lettres!" and a cadaverous Werther, appearing at her door that same evening, cuts loose with the empassioned "Pourquoi me réveiller?"
Some critics have found fault with aspects of the staging, and I would have to agree that the pantomime of the mother’s death and burial at the start of the opera—not in the original libretto—was a little obvious and unnecessary. But the back projections used during the scene at the ball—also not in the original—struck me as dreamily effective, and the tiny room where the opera’s final scene is played out, weirdly lit in blue, evoked the loneliness bordering on madness that Werther was in the grip of.
A critic for the Financial Times described Massenet’s opera as “a precarious fusion of flashy prose and perfumed poetry,” but very little of either quality made it through the subtitles. What we were left with was a soaring romantic drama, sustained by rich orchestral color and two or three of the best voices on stage today.