Oscar Wilde famously said, “to lose one parent is a misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness,” but this new Tokyo production lost not only two Werthers but two conductors between the season announcement and opening night. Early on, the originally-billed Werther (Michael Fabiano) was replaced by Marcello Giordani, but then he pulled out because of an injury in early March and Dmitry Korchak took his place.

Dmitry Korchak (Werther) © New National Theatre, Tokyo | Terashi Masahiko
Dmitry Korchak (Werther)
© New National Theatre, Tokyo | Terashi Masahiko
When Marco Armiliato pulled out and the venerable Michel Plasson was announced as his replacement, many people welcomed the prospect, but then he suffered a fall last month and his son Emmanuel took over at the last minute. I hesitate to judge the end product without taking circumstances into consideration. At the same time, if I had been a paying member of the audience, I could well imagine being rather underwhelmed, as this production didn’t really do full justice to Massenet’s brooding masterpiece based on Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther”.

Two Russian singers took the part of the ill-fated couple. Dmitry Korchak has sung the role of Werther previously, but looking at his repertoire, he seems more at home in Italian roles, as he sang Werther too with an Italianate bright tone rather than with the colours and nuances expected in French repertoire (partly to do with his awkward diction). The voice is not large and he has a tendency to push at the top, but overall he was in good control of the role’s technical challenges and the Ossian’s Song was sung with intensity. For me though, he didn’t quite capture Werther’s desperation or suicidal thoughts, and only at the end when he was dying did he throw himself into the role (admittedly, he wasn’t helped by the production).

Dmitry Korchak (Werther) and Elena Maximova (Charlotte) © New National Theatre, Tokyo | Terashi Masahiko
Dmitry Korchak (Werther) and Elena Maximova (Charlotte)
© New National Theatre, Tokyo | Terashi Masahiko

Mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova (whom I’d previously heard as Olga in The Royal Opera’s Eugene Onegin) impressed as Charlotte. Her dark-hued and now quite powerful voice may not be the conventional voice type for the role (and her French diction was also problematic), but there was sincerity and passion in her interpretation that surpassed these shortcomings. Initially there was a slight edge to her rich lyric voice, but she soon warmed and her arias in Act III, especially “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes!”, were the vocal highlights.

The best French diction (from this non-French cast) came from the versatile baritone Adrian Eröd, who was certainly the best Albert I’d seen in any Werther production. Usually, Albert is a thankless role without a substantial solo scene, but Eröd made his presence felt with his elegant and eloquent singing and strong acting – for example, one could sense from his demeanour in Act III that the relationship between him and Charlotte had deteriorated since their marriage. Charlotte’s sister Sophie was played by sweet-voiced soprano Ryoko Sunakawa, a regular at the NNTT, and her six siblings were angelically sung by the well-drilled children of the Tokyo FM Boys Choir. The smaller roles of Le Bailli and his friends were competently taken by a Japanese cast.

Elena Maximova (Charlotte) and Dmitry Korchak (Werther) © New National Theatre, Tokyo | Terashi Masahiko
Elena Maximova (Charlotte) and Dmitry Korchak (Werther)
© New National Theatre, Tokyo | Terashi Masahiko

Nicolas Joel’s new production was picturesque but bland. Judging from the costumes and furniture, he has set the drama in a central German town in the early-19th century (Massenet set it in 1780s Wetzlar), and follows the composer’s instructions for each act: for instance, Act I is set outside Le Bailli’s stonework house with woodland behind to suggest the “nature” Werther sings about in his opening aria, and Act II unfolds outside a church overlooking the hills. There are some appealing visual details such as authentic furniture in Albert’s house including a real clavecin, and in the final act, Werther dies in a room with bookshelves up to the ceiling. But beyond providing a tableau for each scene, the director didn’t present any active ideas about the psychological state of the characters or the tension between them, and his interpretation of the work was very conventional.

In the pit, Emmanuel Plasson kept pace and was supportive of the singers, and the orchestral playing was generally excellent – especially the violin solo, oboe, saxophone and horns – but he seemed to rather underplay the drama in the orchestral preludes and interludes in which Massenet expressed the emotional undercurrent. For example, the opening chords of the Prélude need to hit you like hammer blows, but they weren’t ominuous enough. Perhaps he was trying to avoid being melodramatic, but one wished for more emotional drive. But then, as I said at the beginning, maybe I am being too critical on a last-minute replacement conductor.