Werther – a heart-wrenching encounter

ProgrammeLast week I accompanied my father to see ‘Werther’ at Covent Garden. There’s nothing quite like an evening of intense operatic drama with a suitably tragic ending to provide catharsis during unsettled times.

Programme illustration ‘Werther and Lotte’ an anonymous woodcut based on an illustration to Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) by Hermann Kaulbach (1846-1909)

Massenet’s ‘Werther’ is based on the 18th-century classic of German literature ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ by Goethe. The tale was published in 1774 and rapidly became popular across Europe as a book of cultural significance.  It is the story of a young man who lives by his ideals and kills himself for love.

Massenet’s operatic version, sung in French, first premiered over 100 years later in 1892. Notably, in the production I saw last week in London, Werther was the Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo, Charlotte was the American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, Albert was the Serbian baritone David Bižić and Sophie the American soprano Heather Engebretson. The performance was conducted by the Royal Opera’s Music Director the British-Italian Antonio Pappano. Other members of the cast were from Holland, Switzerland, Ukraine and Australia. The international buzz continued across the audience. I heard Spanish, Italian and American voices and I was sat next to a German couple who spoke brilliant English. It was a positive microcosm – no pathetic threats here of sending people back!

An international cast takes a bow.

The music was superb and the orchestra was in fine, truly dynamic form as it played to the masterly conducting and interpretation of Antonio Pappano. I’m no expert on French late-nineteenth-century opera, but I found this production riveting, gleefully wallowing in the emotional agitation with the musical tension escalating as the drama intensified. The acting of both DiDonato and Grigòlo was engrossing as they sang with fire and passion. It is a while since I’ve seen a live performance with the tingle factor, but the desperate, hopeless pain of Act 3 sent shivers down my spine more than once. Their singing was not perfection, but who’s complaining when it was so expressive and heart-wrenching. Frequently there’s something lacking in ‘perfect/multiple take’ studio recordings compared to experiencing the vibrancy of live performances.

Backstage at the ROH – the Act 4 attic room photographed by David Bizic who played Albert in the production.

And, as for the production, quite brilliant. The staging and lighting matched the progressively darkening mood of the opera moving from a brilliant blue summer, to a gloomy interior to a black winter night with falling snow. Act 4 was visually thrilling too as the distant attic room (shown above) slowly moved from the depths of the stage to the very front, mystically gliding towards us within a night of falling snow as the orchestra played ‘The Night before Christmas’.

At the end of this harrowing tragedy the two stars looked emotionally drained, but fortunately were revived by the rapturous applause they received.

Werther and Charlotte receive their rapturous applause.

And, finally the conductor left the orchestra pit and came on stage. Bravo, bravo.

Antonio Pappano joins his singers.

Did I mention I loved this?
I wish I could go again.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

8 thoughts on “Werther – a heart-wrenching encounter”

  1. Thanks so much for the review, Agnes! “Werther” is one of my favorite operas, and I was curious how Joyce Didonato would fare as Charlotte, given that her mezzo has a fairly bright tone. I understand this production was telecast in the UK, so maybe it’ll be released on Blu-ray so the rest of us can enjoy it too.

    1. Thank you for your comment. There were only about six performances in this run and we saw the fifth. I understand that the professional reviewers thought Joyce DiDonato’s voice was a touch on the light side, but she was certainly powerful and rounded when I saw her. I did think that just down in the lowest part of her voice compared to my recording of Frederica von Stade, she was not quite as full and rich. Still that’s a minor quibble against the dramatic whole.

  2. Great story Agnes, there is nothing like some serious culture to heighten the senses. You didn’t sneak those shots with a device did you? But it was the bow!

    1. ‘Thackeray’ yup I had missed it! Thanks for the link. Think it might have done for me too, but I came to Werther via my sister who did a degree in German. In fact, not long after the wall came down, I even managed to visit Weimar and Goethe’s house. Massenet’s version has been another treat for me along the Werther path.

    1. Yes, every now and then I do feel really privileged, and I really, really appreciate it. These special, dramatic experiences have a habit of staying with you. Three other experiences that have stuck with me were seeing Daryl Hall and John Oates at the Ipswich Gaumont, Marion Montgomery at Ronnie Scott’s and Prince at the Frankfurt Festhalle.

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