Was the Met’s Werther worth it?

Was the Met’s Werther worth it?


norman lebrecht

February 24, 2014

Yeah, Kaufmann was great. But the rest? And that tired old story? An uncluttered assessment from our closely-engaged operavores, Elizabeth Frayer and Shawn E Milnes. Click here to read.

kaufmann werther

And, by way of ballast, here’s a hardcore professional view by Manuela Hoelterhoff on Bloomberg (you may have missed it since Bloomberg no longer houses a specialist arts feed):

What About Me? Hysterical Poet Commits Suicide at Met: Review

2014-02-20 00:00:00.2 GMT

Review by Manuela Hoelterhoff

Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) — Me! It’s all about me! Opera is full

of narcissistic creatures with histrionic disorders, but is

there anyone quite like young Werther?

Massenet’s opera about the suicidal poet opened on Tuesday

at the Metropolitan Opera in an unfortunate new production

featuring the greatest tenor of today: Jonas Kaufmann.

“Werther,” first heard in 1892, has lots of tenor arias,

beginning with the scene-setting ode to nature. Every leaf in

the woods glowed as Kaufmann looked around and sang with that

velvety tone that is his alone.

New to the neighborhood, Werther has arrived at the house

of the poised yet humble Charlotte to accompany her to a ball.

Enchanted by her country ways, he immediately plans for the

future only to learn that she promised her dying mother to marry

Albert, a local bore, probably a lawyer.

“Un autre! Son epoux!” he gasps as the orchestra thunders

his horror.

Over the next three acts, the virtuous young woman of

Wetzlar, Germany, deflects Werther’s increasingly desperate


I Want Charlotte

Goethe (1749-1832) was just in his 20s when he wrote “The

Sorrows of Young Werther,” partly basing his epistolary novel

on a Lotte he adored and the suicide of a young friend.

Werther’s letters darken as the joys of the world become

completely entwined with what he cannot have: a life with


Even though 100 years had passed by the time the French

Massenet wrote his opera, their spirits comingled in a rare

fusion of text and sound. He captured the Sturm und Drang that

sends Werther careening toward death.

Vengefully shooting himself with her husband’s pistol,

Werther dies very slowly in her arms as the sobbing Charlotte

finally addresses him with the familiar “tu.”

That duet is a brilliant invention — in Goethe’s story,

she faints as a messenger arrives with the news of his death.

The Met’s staging is by Richard Eyre, who moves the show

into the 19th century, a silly idea with grave consequences,

including cluttered sets and ghastly costumes.

Unenlightened Look

Honoring the original period is sometimes best for a piece.

“Werther” is not a story of the corseted Belle Epoque, but the

diaphanous Enlightenment of the 1770s.

Everyone at the Met looks like they escaped a production of

“The Merry Widow,” though Werther’s dreary long coat would be

nice for a Sicilian funeral.

If Eyre has any insight into these people, it doesn’t come

through; especially not Werther’s preening. He loves his blue

jacket, leggings and yellow vest. It’s perverse in an

uninteresting way to deprive him of a look that would become the

rage in Europe for young men who read Goethe — with a few

engaging in copycat suicides.

Rob Howell’s sets are crooked. I guess that would be to

reflect Werther’s unbalanced personality? Isn’t that idea a bit


And might it be time to ban staging overtures? Eyre mimes

the funeral of Charlotte’s mutti as we are trying to listen to

Massenet’s ravishing prelude.

A few pretty projections by Wendall K. Harrington of ravens

and fluttering leaves almost erased the painful memory of an

opening scrim devoted to a Joyeux Noel greeting card. (Werther

chooses Christmas to die).

Dramatic Frenzy

In the pit, Alain Altinoglu conducted with sweeping

gestures at a lifeless pace until the last act, for which the

impressive French mezzo Sophie Koch, in her Met debut, worked

herself into a dramatic frenzy, having freed herself of a

perilously attached pancake hat.

The last duet with Kaufmann was memorably beautiful. Such

radiant singing seared the heart and provoked one of the

greatest ovations in recent memory.

But not before Eyre had Charlotte pick up a pistol to shoot

herself. What? Nothing in the story suggests anything so grossly


For an antidote, look to William Makepeace Thackeray who

rhymed: “Charlotte, having seen his body borne before her on a

shutter, like a well-conducted person, went on cutting bread and


“Werther” is in repertoire until March 15. The production

was made possible by Elizabeth M. and Jean-Marie R. Eveillard.

Kaufmann and Koch also star in a striking period production

directed by Benoit Jacquot for the Bastille Opera in Paris,

available on Amazon.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg

news. Any opinions are her own.)


  • Leslie says:

    You know-everyone damned the Rusalka this year for being old fashioned, damned Rigoletto for being in Las Vegas, damned The Ring for many things…

    A friend in NYC loves this production and will see it multiple times. So…

    I see Werther on the 15th. I reserve my opinions for then. Right now listening to a nice recording I have and getting to know the music.

  • Pamela Brown says:

    Oh no. Such angst! And I had been so looking forward to the HD streaming of Werther…