It’s hard to make a case for a baritone Werther. Though Massenet's own invention, the composer having modified the role specifically for Mattia Battistini in 1902, it comes across as a hodge-podge. The opera is not rescored to account for the deeper voice, making it hard to ignore how lacking it is compared to the original, as soaring high notes get anticlimactically snubbed and youthful ardor is substituted with more mature tones. With Tassis Christoyannis in the title role, though, the Hungarian National Philharmonic’s concert made an almost irresistible argument for the beauty that such stellar leads may lend it.

Tassis Christoyannis, Véronique Gens and György Vashegyi
© Szilvia Csibi

A performance all the more impressive for being a role debut, Christoyannis made for a remarkably sympathetic Werther, deeply moving in his portrayal. Vocally, he might just be the platonic ideal of a baritone Werther, with a gleaming, golden top and smooth, velvety bottom register, lending both a soft, youthful touch and a forceful intensity to the role. His singing was marked by a fitting mix of lyricism and searing urgency: “Oui, ce qu’elle m’ordonne... Lorsque l’enfant” was memorable for its tormented zeal, and his Act 3-4 scenes with Véronique Gens’ Charlotte were thrilling and deeply poignant.

Equal praise must go to Gens, her consummate, elegant vocal artistry more than evenly matching Christoyannis' in her own role debut. Subdued in Acts 1-2, her performance turned instantly magnetic in Act 3; Gens’ radiant, crystalline soprano shone in an impassioned, sensitively phrased Letter Scene, lending her Charlotte an air of tragic dignity. Her following scenes with Christoyannis were nothing short of electrifying, performed with such intensity that had one permanently at the edge of one's seat, and her anguish in Werther’s death scene was gravely felt.

A strong supporting cast carried their roles admirably. Hélène Carpentier’s silvery soprano made for a charming Sophie, while Thomas Dolié showed off a powerful, menacing baritone as Albert (though with a touch too metallic edge at first), his darker timbre contrasting nicely with Christoyannis’ Werther. Matthieu Lécroart’s resonant bass-baritone and amusing acting drew a lively portrayal of Le Bailli. Artavazd Sargsyan as Schmidt and Laurent Deleuil as Johann /Brühlmann showed off fresh, promising voices, vividly embodying their minor roles, while the young members of the Choir of the Zoltán Kodály Hungarian Choir School performed well.

György Vashegyi led the HNPO in a debut of his own, his first cocnert with the orchestra since having been named their Chief Music Director last summer. This performance of a late Romantic great was hard not to see as a test for Vashegyi, primarily known for his outstanding work with early music. The result was positive, though not without faults. Vashegyi’s conducting displayed his laudable strengths: a crucial sensitivity to the singers’ needs, precise, insightful phrasing, and a great sense of drama. However, it took most of the opera’s first half for Vashegyi and the HNPO to find their footing. 

Though responding well to the playful moments of the score, the orchestral performance drifted in focus, a somewhat disjointed phrasing marring the prélude and the Clair de lune interlude, the tempi at times dragging at already languid parts. Come Act 3, however, a switch was flipped and magic found, launching a second half performance of white-hot, Wagnerian intensity that matched the singers’ tour de force delivery. The already sumptuous orchestral sound grew even more luscious, revelling in the soaring, melodramatic beauty of Massenet’s score. Having been recorded for release, this performance will be well worth listening to again.