Goethe’s epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (“The Sorrows of Young Werther”) hit the 1774 zeitgeist not only because it brought back emotion to the rather sober Age of Enlightenment, but because the tragic title hero sports a multi-faceted character that lends itself to various interpretations and projections, therefore making it easy to feel sympathy or even partly identify with the young man who kills himself because his beloved Lotte is married to another. Since that time, the then-outrageous plot has been an inspirational source for many, including Jules Massenet, whose opera Werther premièred in Vienna in 1892 as a happy result of unfortunate circumstances – and in a German translation. Contrary to the book where the reader gets to see Lotte only through Werther’s letters and therefore his eyes, Massenet’s Charlotte has a character of her own. This makes her an interesting part for singers, directors and conductors alike; it might even be said that the way that Werther is presented in a production depends much on Charlotte and vice versa.

Roberto Alagna as Werther © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Roberto Alagna as Werther
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

The Staatsoper’s production from 2005 is set in the 1950s, to the backdrop of an enormous tree that shows the change of the seasons from spring to winter, therefore reflecting the development of Werther’s moods. In his stage direction, Andrei Serban avoids the well-trodden paths of period stagings, and this works very well (including the idea to have Charlotte pregnant for Acts III and IV) although some of opera’s most beautiful lines (“Rêve! Extase! Bonheur” – “Dream! Ecstasy! Bliss!”) lose a bit of their magic when sung next to a yellow swing hammock. Naturally, the focus in such a setting is not so much on Werther’s emotional torments, but on his love interest’s more dutiful, even practical approach to life. In this performance, Bertrand de Billy in the pit read the score accordingly, often opting for briskness in tempi that made Charlotte’s tale of her dead mother sound a bit businesslike and Werther’s declaration of love (“Mon âme a reconnu votre âme” – “My soul has recognised your soul”) more a spur-of-the-moment than an earth-shattering insight. For lack of emotional depth or operatic grandeur, this is not my preferred interpretation, but it makes sense. The rather casual take on the repetitive falling semitone in the Act I finale made less sense, however; these musical whip-lashes on Werther, who has just learned that Charlotte is engaged to be married, lacked poignancy and were performed as a general state of alarm and confusion instead. The interlude that seamlessly joins Acts III and IV was however beautifully done, and a few scratchy notes from the violins in the overture aside, the orchestra was on great form.

Charlotte is a great role for a mezzo-soprano with a secure top register like Elīna Garanča and she sang the part in the première of the given production in a way that made many think it was created for her. So replacing her (she had cancelled for sickness) was no easy task, but one that Vesselina Kasarova took on with aplomb, and she gave a fine performance. Vocally, this role fits her well (she has sung Charlotte in this production before) and both the stage direction and the conducting played to her strength, which lies more in deconstructing a part rather than bringing overwhelming emotion to it. Roberto Alagna, on the other hand, is famous for the opposite: when he sings Werther, you can expect thunderous passion rather than melancholy and reverie, and he didn’t disappoint in this respect. Volume aside, however, his vocal resources in the last performance of a run of four seemed exhausted, as he frequently cracked. That was particularly evident in the demanding “Pourquoi me réveiller”, but that aria as well as his overall performance was frenetically applauded nevertheless, and Werther’s death scene in fact deserved it. Tae-Joong Yang sang Albert ably, but lacked in stage presence; the libretto doesn’t portray him as too colourful a character, but this production needs someone who shows Charlotte’s husband as an acceptable alternative to the quixotic Werther. Daniela Fally, on the contrary, made the most of her comprimario part and impressed with a youthful tone that is required for Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie.

With all its flaws, this Werther made for an enjoyable evening and many will regret that this gem of the repertory that has been performed every year since this production premièred is not scheduled for the 2013/14 season.