Monday, June 16, 2014

Werther, or don't hush dear Charlotte!


Tonight was the last night of my grand Berlin opera season. The opera was Massenet’s Werther, and it was given in a concert performance at the Philharmonie with the forces of the Deutsche Oper. Plus two guests.

I had never seen Werther. Somehow, it had never come my way. But I read the novella at age about 14, and thought it a bit of a bore. Just another love-me-or-I’ll-kill-myself rant, such as those introspective 20th century novelists used to wallow in. Not a lot of action, so – I thought – not a promising stage piece.

Well, I was right. But … then there was Monsieur Massenet.

As played and sung tonight, the opera fell into two pieces. The first half was as uninvolving as I had feared. In fact, the already sparse house got sparser in the interval. The folk on either side of me, and the four in front of me, were among the considerable numbers who didn’t return for part two. They were wrong. Because Act three suddenly catches fire …

I think you would only do Werther if you wanted to showcase a particular tenor in the title-role. That certainly seemed to be the idea tonight. Vittorio Grigolo was heavily advertised by his recording company (oh dear, easy listening) in the programme and the foyer. Well, if that’s how they want to market him …  but I think he’s worth a touch better than to be sold on a sort of French-language Bocelli sales-pitch.

I am a Raymond Amade devotee from way back, so you’ve got to treat music such as Massenet’s rather specially for me. And little Mr Grigolo, I must say, did pretty well. He got through the self-indulgent graunches and grinds of Act I and act II with great earnestness, power … and he worked so hard! He put everything he had into the excessive emotions of the hero, soaring lustily and clearly up to the high notes.

But in Act III he was a different man. Why? Oh, easy. Act III is the leading lady’s act. And here the evening burst into flower. Werther’s beloved Charlotte – hardly given a chance in the first half -- has the first section of this act all to herself, and Charlotte, tonight, was magnificently played by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova. Her rich, glorious voice and her don’t-move-a-muscle emotional power shifted the whole ball-game up a notch, and when the hero finally joined in, he had something grand to play with and against.

It’s the librettists fault that Werther takes ‘an unconsciable time a-dying’ and when he does it’s ‘Oh I’m dead’ (him) and ‘Ahhhh’ (her), but before that there are moments of real sentiment, and both performers played them finely. She naturally, and he rather ‘taught’. Yes, well Sony Records, maybe you’ve got it right: he’s a wee bit Robert Goulet/cabaret.

The rest of the characters are also-sangs in this opera. Markus Brück (Amtmann) being beyond criticism by anyone, my decided favourite was Siobhan Stagg as 15 year-old Sophie. A fresh, clear, soubrette-soprano and a delightful personality: she managed better than anyone the hideous exits and entrances of the concert performance. Question: why couldn’t she leave her score on the lectern to which she returned repeatedly.

Jörg Schörner gave another of his delightful character tenor sketches as Schmidt, but John Chest – so admirable as Billy Budd – was rather underpowered and throaty as Albert.

The orchestra, under Donald Runnicles, had a grand time with the beautiful music of Massenet, and the Kinderchor (a speciality of the house) sang in truly lovely fashion.

So, you dozens (or more) who left in the interval, you were foolish. You missed a wondrous performance by Ms Gubanova and the best of Massenet’s score …

But I’m still glad I saw this opera in concert, rather than staged. It is all about two people … anything else is trivial decoration. Anyway, now I’ve ‘seen’, or at least heard it, and I can say ‘whatever the story, Act III is great stuff’. Especially as sung by Ms Gubanova.

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