Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Werther review – under the ‘Werther’ tenor soldiers on at Covent Garden

23 June 2023

Some great singing and playing in a dull production at the Royal Opera.


Jonas Kaufmann & Aigul Akhmetshina (Photo: Bill Cooper)

‘Noooooo’ cried the audience upon seeing the hapless emissary with his dreaded announcement – however it was not that bad, Jonas Kaufmann had a cold, but wanted to perform anyway. This was greeted with a grumpy silence, when it should really have elicited a round of applause for such heroic – or foolhardy? – behaviour. The same announcement should really have been made on opening night as Kaufmann was obviously ill then, but none was forthcoming so it was open season for anyone so inclined to rush into print ‘regretfully’ predicting his decline. Fortunately he gave his all despite his obvious indisposition, and was rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation.

Kaufmann was the ‘draw’ for this Werther, since audiences certainly were not coming for the dreary production, but Antonio Pappano was the other ‘star’ for his magisterial command of the score, eliciting glorious playing from an orchestra on superb form. The tenderness of the music which makes clear the love between the protagonists, and the doom-laden phrases which portend its outcome were thrillingly achieved, and Pappano, as always, nurtured the singers with care, although it was noticeable that Kaufmann did not receive – presumably had not asked for – any indulgence.

Those familiar with his performances as Werther at the Metropolitan Opera or in Paris, would know that he was sublime in the role some years ago, and despite his illness some of that greatness still shone through. This was a very different Werther to his earlier assumptions of the part – less the impulsively headstrong poet, more the angrily wounded lover, and as with most of the cast he had not exactly been given much detail in the way of direction, so he was left to his own devices. Fortunately his natural magnetism and sense of poetry carried him through: ‘Un autre est son époux!’ brought the house down, and whilst ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ might not have been a barnstormer it was delivered with nuanced phrasing and immense tenderness.  The fever which gripped most of Europe after Goethe’s novella The Sorrows of Young Werther resulted in young men sporting blue jackets and buff waistcoats and was said to have inspired some suicides. Kaufmann’s singing of ‘A cette Heure suprême, je suis heureux’ is so hauntingly done that it makes suicide seem desirable, in keeping with the Romantic notion of impossible love.

“…he gave his all… and was rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation”


Jonas Kaufmann & Aigul Akhmetshina (Photo: Bill Cooper)

Aigul Akhmetshina is a striking Charlotte, the perfect combination of domestic goddess and idealized love, and she sang with confident exuberance. Hers is a remarkably even and strikingly focused voice for one still in her twenties, and although she may have moments of waywardness she is a real talent.

The annoyingly bouncy Sophie was very well sung by Sarah Gilford, and that pillar of dull society Albert was convincingly portrayed and mellifluously sung by Gordon Bintner. The rest of the parts were well taken, with even the (sometimes irritating) children convincingly done and Alastair Miles’ doddery daddy quite endearing. Why no curtain calls for them and the ‘old friends’?

The story is set in Wetzlar, a small town near Frankfurt with typical half-timbered buildings, so it’s puzzling that the home of a prosperous citizen should feature tacky wooden doors and sparse furnishings. Charles Edwards’ set design for the third act is based upon The Music Room by Vilhelm Hammershǿi, and is elegant although the artist provided chairs on either side of the fortepiano, such comforts being missing from the set. Don’t these people ever sit down? Surely a fainting couch would make the attempted sex scene less awkward?

It was puzzling that Werther’s suicide was set not in his shabby study but in the middle of the previous set, although very helpful that the death now takes place centre stage, since he takes so long to do it. Geneviève Dufour had faithfully revived Benoît Jacquot’s original production although a few touches such as those autumn leaves were missed – maybe they proved too slippery on the sloping floors.

There are three more performances, and it’s certainly worth getting a ticket for the superb orchestra, and, if he’s well enough, Kaufmann’s Werther – but if he’s as ill with hay fever as other sufferers are at the moment, I would not count on it.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.

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