Massenet’s Werther is a Germanic drama written in French. In a number of ways it feels as if things don’t quite stick together. One problem is that the first two acts can become detached from the latter two. The third and fourth acts have a musical integrity and dramatic intensity that glues them together. Without sufficient emotional intensity and commitment to the performances, the first two can be dull and seem like a prelude to the main action later on. But failure in the first two acts also gives a hollow ring to the extraordinary music in the final two. This is precisely what happened on the first night of the Royal Opera House’s revival of Benoit Jacquot’s 2004 production of Werther.
The two most successful recent performances of Werther were the Paris Opers’s production in 2010 and the Metropolitan Opera’s in 2014. Both had Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch in the two main roles. Kaufmann gave all the intensity of German Romanticism you would want and the pair had very good emotional chemistry on stage. Juan Diego Florez doesn’t quite bring that kind of seriousness and weight to the role. He often gives the impression that he is about to tell a joke or engage in a spot of slapstick. Isabel Leonard is vocally impressive. She has an extraordinarily warm and smooth mezzo-soprano timbre that is yet clear and penetrating. She dazzles on the stage. What she doesn’t quite seem able to do is to convincingly portray Charlotte’s fragility and anxiety in the latter half of the opera and gives too healthy and sturdy a performance. The chemistry between Florez and Leonard isn’t all that one might hope either. Nevertheless both Florez and Leonard were impressive in the main arias, Florez received some solid applause for his Pourquoi me réveiller and Leonard produced an uncharacteristically engaging letter scene.
The supporting cast is led by Jacques Imbrailo as Albert. He is compelling, romantic and idealistic in the earlier parts and perhaps a little less stern and jealous than some other performers in act three. American mezzo-soprano Heather Engebrestson is a characteristically sweet Sophie.
After listening to a disjointed evening of orchestral playing in Don Giovanni, it was a delight to hear Edward Gardner’s masterful and romantic direction from the pit. The strings and the horns and the woodwinds were perfectly together and rose to the drama of the music through the latter passages. One mild complaint might be that there was a tendency to drown out Diego Florez but that may be forgiven.
This production has been around for quite a while now and is aging well. It is largely unfussy and intelligently emphasises the increasing claustrophobia of the drama as the acts progress. Altogether it was not a brilliant evening of opera at Covent Garden but with good singing and inspired conducting from the pit it is thoroughly enjoyable.