Werther was both the first and the ultimate Romantic. Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo took this deeply to heart in this reboot of the Met’s 2014 production. From the moment he stepped on stage as our ill-fated title character, Grigòlo seemed as if he may burst at the seams. With luscious tone, he relished every schwa and syllable. In his opening aria “O Nature, pleine de grace”, Werther's appreciation of the birds and the trees was as oversaturated as was his later longing for a woman he had only just met. Such passion, I thought, could hardly be sustained.
But sustained it was. For every generous dripping of melodrama that Grigòlo gave to the first half of Massenet’s opera, his fellow cast members response was trifling. It was as if there were two operas taking place: one depicting the goings-on of the countryside bourgeoisie in the Belle Époque, and the other a window into a tortured, lovelorn soul.
Maestro Edward Gardner’s initial reading of the score’s wandering melodies was serviceable, albeit a little rushed. Richard Eyre’s elegant sets, replete with clever use of video projections and scene shifts, added a pleasant veneer to each scene. But every time Werther’s pained leitmotif punctured the bucolic scenes, one could be forgiven for getting whiplash.
During the first hour and a half of the production, I wondered if this interpretation of the opera was a deliberate attempt to mock its hero. Werther’s ardor was trivialized by Isabel Leonard’s lukewarm Charlotte. At first, the two had little chemistry. When Charlotte sang the modest line, “Why do you love me?” I found myself asking the same question.
Sophie (sung by Anna Christy) and Albert (sung by David Bižić) belted out litanies of dry exposition. Though they were both well cast and in good voice, it was difficult to penetrate either of their interior worlds. By the end of Act II, it seemed obvious that by falling so deeply in love so quickly (“My soul has recognized yours!”), Werther had been fooled by his own grand illusions. He simply did not see the dullness of his own surroundings.
After intermission, however, the opera’s tone drastically changed for the better. Ms Leonard’s characterization of Charlotte attained a newfound depth. Her “Letters” aria allowed us to witness her solitude for the first time. When Ms Leonard sang the line “Let my tears flow”, her earthy lower register was matched beautifully by the sumptuous saxophone solo. Her inner struggle to reconcile the rules of matrimony with the yearning of her “fragile” heart laid bare one of the opera’s more powerful themes: whether the young should be guided by their elders, or by something new.
The contrast between the public and private Charlotte was surely intentional, to a degree, but I can’t say it was entirely effective. Still, once Charlotte became afflicted by Werther’s hyperbolic condition, the production took on a fresh life. Even Maestro Gardner seemed more in tune with the score’s deeper emotional layers. The consonance was satisfying.
Werther and Charlotte rode a beautiful wave into the opera’s signature aria “Pourquoi me réveiller,” which Mr Grigòlo sang to perfection. It was, indeed, worthy of (but did not receive) an encore. Seemingly ecstatic thereafter, Mr Grigòlo’s physical acting in the remainder of this scene was remarkable. He shifted from the heights of desire to a frightening display of anger. I felt a genuine fear for Charlotte when she resisted his advances, and he sang violently of how his “lips burned for her”. Once again, we could bear witness to Werther’s folly, as he claimed, “Charlotte has decreed my doom.” There was no question that his undoing was entirely of his own doing.
As the opera progressed, the scenery of summer’s chirp descended into winter’s pall. The pleasant leafy world that had previously spun around Werther disappeared, only to be replaced with a claustrophobic vision of his bleak inner life. The recurring set – a series of grand rectangular frames (within a frame, within a frame, etc.) – achieved a new poignancy. The final act took place in Werther’s small apartment, which gradually swung downstage and became the scene of action to the exclusion of all else. We zoomed into his ailing mind.
Through the dulcet sounds of the Met Opera children’s choir, we were reminded of Werther’s foolish innocence. His chromatic suicide was a rich and satisfying end to an otherwise uneven production.
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