Massenet’s Werther premiered in Vienna in 1892, five years after it was composed, not only because the theater’s management initially took a distinct disliking to the spectacle’s depressing plot, but because at a later date, a gas-lamp had burned down the theater where it was to run. While the opera features one of the longest deaths I’ve ever been party to, its French libretto (Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann) is music that emerges as a kind of flood of melodious dialogue, typifying a tradition that was customary in opera around 1900.

Juan Diego Flórez (Werther) and Anna Stéphany (Charlotte) © Herwig Prammer
Juan Diego Flórez (Werther) and Anna Stéphany (Charlotte)
© Herwig Prammer

In Tatjana Gürbaca’s heady Zurich production, the lead figure of Werther − brilliantly sung by Juan Diego Flórez − is simply a victim of an overly frustrated heart-throb and a misfit, rather than Goethe’s archetypal Romantic poet who searches eternally for beauty and truth. Flórez debuted in the role to great acclaim in Bologna late last year, and he moved here again with ease and grace among the challenges that the score’s wide vocal intervals and impassioned lyrics presented him. His body language was constricted, but that mirrored the emotional rollercoaster his character had to undergo, so was fully in keeping with the role. His beloved Charlotte was sung equally well by the mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany, who deserves additional accolades for meeting the demands of some difficult staging. I had to cringe for her at the start of Act 3, for example, when she had to step over brittle shards of metal Christmas tree ornaments she’d shattered in desperation, or when she had to pile and dismantle a whole tower of side chairs, singing full force to her Werther all the while.

Juan Diego Flórez (Werther) © Herwig Prammer
Juan Diego Flórez (Werther)
© Herwig Prammer

As Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie − an adolescent in Act 1 who goes on to resemble a seasoned Harrod’s shopper by Act 3 − Mélissa Petit was the delightful third powerhouse in the performance. Her crystal voice was as compelling as her acting was convincing, and one would be hard put to imagine a more loving and supportive sister. As the girls’ father, Le Bailli, Cheyne Davidson made his debut in the role here in Zurich, and convincingly played the patriarch. Rich, weighty orchestration by the Philharmonia Zürich flourished under conductor Cornelius Meister’s emphatic baton, even if occasionally at a volume a little too loud for a few of the singers in minor roles. The instrumental solos alone − particularly the accomplished flute, oboe, and cello – were well worth the price of admission.

Anna Stéphany (Charlotte) and Juan Diego Flórez (Werther) © Herwig Prammer
Anna Stéphany (Charlotte) and Juan Diego Flórez (Werther)
© Herwig Prammer

Klaus Grünberg’s stage design was a kind of irregularly-shaped and wooden-panelled coffer inset whose every surface slightly differed. The stage itself − Charlotte’s home – measured only two and a half metres front to back, the limitation on the field of action seen as metaphor for Charlotte’s being married to one man, but yearning for another. There were as many ingenious reflections of Werther’s emotional state: a paltry miniature Christmas tree, the colourless, undecorated walls. I confess I found some of the theatrical gags contrived – the Walt Disney-like glitter falling onto the lovers from the ceiling in Act 2, for example, or an Alzheimers patient clinging to a lap-sized wooden crucifix like one would a baby. That said, after the sweetness of Werther’s last aria, "Pourquoi me réveiller?", Act 3’s moonlit scene in video was simply stellar. Costumes by Silke Willrett were toned down to basics, except for the adult’s Sophie’s wild mix of plaid, stripes and glittery platform sandals. Predictably, Charlotte spent most of the last two acts having to grapple with her 1950s dress-length slip, that costume of the liberal stage that singers simply have to master to avoid wardrobe dysfunctions.

Anna Stéphany (Charlotte) and Mélissa Petit © Herwig Prammer
Anna Stéphany (Charlotte) and Mélissa Petit
© Herwig Prammer

Rounding out the opera were the fine children’s choir of Charlotte’s younger siblings (direction Ernst Raffelsberger) and the elderly couple, whose silent presence on stage in Act 4 was well-timed and justified; the two were as loving with one another as to star in a Hollywood film. In the lesser roles, Audun Iversen played an unbending and painfully conservative Albert, Charlotte’s husband-by-decree. Alongside his errant wife, he was as strong as to make us uncomfortable, and he showed a equally tight command of his vocal work. As Schmidt and Johann, two friends of Charlotte’s father, Martin Zysset excelled as the unwavering pedant, and Yuriy Tsiple convincingly portrayed some of the writhing and sexually deviant behaviour that’s part-and-parcel of many Zurich productions.

In an interview in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that ran shortly before the opening, Gürbaca was cited as saying that “Provocation is part of the package.” Yet she also contended that through this opera, we should come “to understand something about ourselves, our society, and the world at large.” If love, obsession and loyalty are the backbone of that experience, then this Werther has all points covered.