(by Jules Massenet, 1892)
Royal Opera House, London, June 2016
Werther loves Charlotte but she is affianced to Albert and a sense of duty. Werther understands the score; she must do her duty. He will (so he threatens) vanish, violently. But will he, a poet not a marksman, manage to blow himself away?
Well, we liked this production. It is a slight piece of work, modern, situational rather than plot-driven, and it can glow only if the doomed non-couple have the requisite conviction. In this production, they did. Massenet’s adaptation of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), his animalistic Sturm und Drang account of an unrequited, suicidal passion for Charlotte Buff (what Joseph McCabe in his Goethe called “a glorification of lawless weakness”) is here given a simple but intense treatment, that works brilliantly.
The stark and simple sets have been criticised but, given that the feel of the piece veers from Ibsen to Chekhov, the use of scenes inspired by the ‘interior monologue’ works of Vilhelm Hammershøi (see below) is exactly right – judiciously simple, with cinematic use of light that kept our emotions unsettled, like the oppressive and vivid depictions of the weather over the four acts:
Massenet’s ‘daughter of Gounod’ tunes never scale Wagnerian heights, but are apt, tasteful and sweet. Conductor Antonio Pappano obviously relishes Werther (he seems to chew it over, like he’s snacking on a peanut paste sandwich and not wanting to end it by swallowing) and he kept the momentum going well.
The ‘will they? won’t they? should they?’ lovers were beautifully represented by Joyce DiDonato (Charlotte) and Vittorio Grigòlo (Werther). In their respective ways, the lead characters are wet and limp as old lettuce, but tenor and mezzo sang and acted their hearts and lungs out, and made it happen (singing; hand-wringing). In fact, confidence is the key to this work and the leads exemplified it. They were clearly exhausted by the final curtain.
Essentially, only a Goethe could make such romantic tripe work – after all, why top yourself when there are so many fish in the sea? But here we were persuaded that Werther’s passion had become too much for him. “Do we offend heaven by ceasing to suffer?” Maybe!