Culture and Civilisations

Goethe’s tragic hero Werther — a musical treat at the Royal Opera

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Goethe’s tragic hero Werther — a musical treat at the Royal Opera

Under the sympathetic baton of Edward Gardner, this superbly cast revival of Massenet’s Werther was a hugely moving experience. 

The previous revival in 2016, with Vittorio Grigolo and Joyce DiDonato in the principal roles, was very good indeed, but this time Juan Diego Flórez and Isabel Leonard gave superbly well-nuanced performances — truly expressing the feelings in Goethe’s loosely autobiographical Sorrows of the young Werther (on which Massenet based his opera). Starting gently, we see the sensitive young poet enamoured with the serenity and motherliness of Charlotte, who promised on her mother’s deathbed to marry the splendid Albert. Werther’s obsessive sadness turns to heartbreak as he realises Charlotte loves him too, and finally leads to his suicide. 

Although this beautifully constructed work was delivered to the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1887, the director found it too gloomy for his audience and turned it down. Goethe’s powerful tale of a century earlier reputedly led to ‘copycat’ suicides of young men dressing in the same clothing Goethe described, armed with similar pistols and with the book found nearby. ‘Werther Fever’ caused concern to the authorities — both novel and clothing style were banned in Leipzig in 1775, and the novel was banned in Denmark and Italy. As a music drama this may not have the full-blooded tragedy of some Italian operas, but its subtle appeal and remarkable use of musical motifs make it a wonderful work.

The title role is not what one thinks of as typical Juan Diego Flórez territory, but his gentle presence and increasing desperation as Werther were beautifully expressed, and his Pourquoi me reveiller in Act III induced spontaneous cheers from the audience. His restrained passion within the confines of polite society in Act II, interrupted by the beautifully sung and superbly portrayed Charlotte of Isabel Leonard, led to a glorious duet under the baton of Edward Gardner, whose sensitive conducting of singers and orchestra brought Massenet’s music fully to life.

As Charlotte’s younger sister, Heather Engebretson gave a gloriously irritating performance of this pretty, insensitive 15-year old and the sisters’ duet in Act III was superbly staged. Revival director Andrew Sinclair seems to have made this Benoît Jacquot production his own, with great care given to placing of singers. As Charlotte’s dull but loving fiancé, Jacques Imbrailo made a firm and wonderfully attractive presence, Alastair Miles gave a solid account of her father the Bailli, and young artist Michael Mofidian sang a very notable bass-baritone as his friend Johann.

A terrific revival, fully expressing the enormous subtlety of this Massenet opera under Edward Gardner’s musical direction. Until October 5, with a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on November 30 — details here.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 75%
  • Interesting points: 75%
  • Agree with arguments: 66%
3 ratings - view all

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