Watching Werther is rather like watching the Titanic hit the iceberg: here’s Charlotte, minding her own business, content in her future with Albert, looking for no more than a few good waltzes at tonight’s ball, and crash! Werther catapults into her life, leaving tears and catastrophe in his wake. Massenet’s Werther, composed in 1885 and first staged in Geneva in 1892, premiered in concert format at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on June 16th, performed at the Berlin Philharmonie with Ekaterina Gubanova as Charlotte and Vittorio Grigolo as the eponymous poet.

Vittorio Grigolo (Werther) © Bettina Stoess
Vittorio Grigolo (Werther)
© Bettina Stoess

In concert format, Werther is stripped down to its bare essentials: music and emotion. Without sets, direction and costumes to guide the audience, it is left to the singers to paint realistic portraits of the characters they are singing. Vittorio Grigolo did an excellent job of portraying a man whose reality is everyone else’s fairy tale. The contrast between the moonlight and stardust of Werther’s romantic visions and the bounding, almost relentlessly busy music of the day to day life of every other character was heightened by Grigolo’s dreamy musical interpretation. His “O nature, pleine de grace” was sung with clarity and delight in the beauty of the night; later, his “Pourquoi me reveiller” was sung with extreme pathos and tragedy. He fell hard for Charlotte, and it was here that the lack of staging brought out the true character of one of opera’s favorite doomed tenors. Grigolo’s Werther came across as selfish and obsessive as the opera progressed. Ignoring Charlotte’s entreaties that he find someone else and leave her alone, he manipulated the emotions of the assorted characters right up to his final note, threatening suicide when he can’t have his way and ultimately going through with it. This Werther was exactly the sort of man that mothers warn their daughters about.

Grigolo’s portrayal of the obsessive lover was helped by Ekaterina Gubanova’s cool and pragmatic Charlotte. From her initial interactions with the children to her statement that Werther cannot love her because he “doesn’t even know” her, on through her Act III interactions with Sophie and Albert, Gubanova’s Charlotte was less a young woman trapped in a passionless marriage and more a martyr to the emotions of others. Her “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” became a cry for understanding, not of her love for Werther, but of her helplessness with the entire situation. Gubanova’s outstanding mezzo was well suited to Charlotte’s music; she sang with surety and beauty, and also with the understanding that Werther’s death came as something of a relief, tragic as it was.

In the supporting roles were the stalwarts of the Deutsche Oper ensemble. As Albert, John Chest was hearty and sympathetic, kind with Charlotte, playful with Sophie and not unkind to Werther. Albert often gets a bad rap as the one who keeps the two star-crossed lovers apart, but his really is an impossible situation. What is a decent man to do when his wife is being hounded by a man who will not take no for an answer? Small wonder he gives Werther his pistols.

Siobhan Stagg sang an excellent Sophie, her soprano bright and crystal clear. Sophie, too, gets a bad rap for her continual cheer, but Stagg brought gravitas to the role. “Du gai soleil, plein de flamme” was sung with exquisite sweetness; there was nothing cloying in Stagg’s performance. Later, in the Act III scene with Charlotte, she was sensible and kind, worried about her sister’s increasing morbidity.

Werther in concert at the Deutsche Oper Berlin © Bettina Stoess
Werther in concert at the Deutsche Oper Berlin
© Bettina Stoess

The smaller roles of the Bailli, and his wino cronies Schmidt and Johann were sung with great merriness by Markus Bruck, Jorg Schorner and Ben Wager. For comic relief, they were bellicose and funny without ever sacrificing the beauty of their music. The children of the Kinderchor der Deutschen Oper did an excellent job as Charlotte’s small siblings, though it was perhaps unintentionally funny to imagine the Bailli as having fathered 35 small carollers. Their voices were high and clear, and they performed the final Christmas carol with exquisite sweetness.

The true star of the evening, however, was the Orchester der Deutschen Oper, led by Donald Runnicles. Under his baton, the orchestra swept from Werther’s fairytale world to the daily life of Wexlar and back, wooing and sighing and laughing and crying. At times enormous and at others soft as a whisper, the orchestra highlighted the sense of longing in the opera, its beauty and ultimate tragedy. As manipulative as Werther is, as helpless as Charlotte feels, the overpowering beauty of life and love filled the concert hall and reminded everyone that for all its sorrows, life is beautiful.