Massenet is undergoing something of a Renaissance at the Royal Opera House. 2010 witnessed its production of Manon, the Royal Ballet is currently performing the eponymous ballet (built on the composers music), while this season features Cendrillon alongside arguably his most popular work.
Whatever else is said about Werther, the tale of a woe stricken and doomed poet hardly generates action in abundance. This places unique demands on any production because it requires the orchestra, the singing and the drama to hook us into the emotions of the characters at every turn. We must willingly join, and then truly feel every step of, their psychological journeys. Nine times out of ten Benot Jacquots 2003 production, revived here by Andrew Sinclair, succeeds in doing this, although it is a shame that a series of little things place it so close and yet so far from being a truly great one.
Vocally and dramatically Rolando Villazns Werther and Sophie Kochs Charlotte steal the night, although in terms of characterisation the former moves in and out of focus. His first aria, O nature pleine de grce, verges on the melodramatic, with an abundance of outstretched arms and clasped hands. It is as if he is gesturing to the audience to feel his emotion, which seems at odds with the temperament of a deep thinking and feeling aesthete. His voice here is too flashy, which affects its tonal quality, although this is the greatest criticism that can be levied against it all evening. By Act II he is at the height of his game and his performances of J’aurais sur ma poitrine and Lorsque l’enfant revient d’un voyage are skilfully managed and truly captivating.
In an otherwise superb moonlight scene with Koch, Villazn seems too caught up in his own character for us to truly feel chemistry between the two, and his approach rather overshadows Kochs slightly more subtle one. At other times the pairing is infinitely more successful, although it is notable that the first time that this Werther really appears frail and pitiable is when he encounters Charlottes husband.
Kochs voice possesses a superb combination of purity, depth and resonance, and she successfully instils in this Charlotte an element of strength and resilience. She ceases to be simply a weak, subservient being, and this helps bring real gravitas to her exceptional performance of Va! laisse couler mes larmes.
Eri Nakamura is a commendable Sophie, while Audun Iversen makes the most of the thin role of Charlottes husband, Albert. He is supposed to be a dull, dependable type, but Iversen combines a straightness of poise with such firm yet dreamy singing that we look forward to each of his far too infrequent entrances.
In the pit Antonio Pappano both understands and relishes Massenets wondrous score. During the Overture the power brought forth is occasionally to the detriment of the airy lightness that the music also requires, but even here the precision that characterises the evenings playing shines through. Particularly impressive is the way in which alterations in mood, such as the lead into Act Is second scene and Charlottes departure to seek out Werther in Act III, are astutely managed.
The sets, on the other hand, are largely disappointing. Those in Acts I and II create diagonals across the stage and emphasise the passing of the seasons. Once, however, one has grasped certain points about them (Act Is wall reveals life and growth at one end and death and dereliction at the other), there is little in which to take an interest. These contribute to lapses in atmosphere, and moments such as the close of Act II when Albert slowly advances towards the audience feel potent but undercharged.
Act IIIs sets, on the other hand, are highly effective. Based on Vilhelm Hammershi paintings (as are many Ibsen sets) they create spaces in which the duets of Villazn and Koch can truly shine. It is here that orchestra and singers, drama and set all combine to create something of breathtaking brilliance.