Masterful tenor and fanciful sets rescue Met's sterile Werther
By Jules Massenet.
Metropolitan Opera House,
New York City.
Broadcast tomorrow at 1:30 pm
on WCRB-FM 102.5.
By JULIAN WEST
THE SETS FOR THIS PRODUCTION OF Werther, designed by Rudolf Heinrich, fancifully create a storybook world, as though we were stepping into the Goethe novel on which Massenet based his opera. At the beginning of each act, the set is seen through a framing scrim, creating the impression of a two-dimensional photo and further stressing the fictional nature of the story, which is too often glibly passed off as autobiographical.
But the storybook conceit should not limit the human dimension of the drama, and the acting too frequently seemed two-dimensional as well. Rather than blending into the backdrop, the acting should have stood out in stark contrast to it. In what could have been an intimate and appealing opera, stage director Fabrizio Melano settled too often for posturing and the grand gesture.
Only in the final scene did the desired intimacy emerge, as Neil Shicoff (Werther) and Kathleen Kuhlmann (Charlotte) joined in a moving love duet. Otherwise, it was only when Shicoff was left alone on stage that the production really soared. Shicoff has in recent seasons become a major presence at the Met, with roles including Hoffmann and Don Carlo.
He also makes a splendid Werther. After his first aria "Je ne sais si je veille" the audience knew they were in for a good evening of singing. Schicoff went from strength to strength: "Un autre est son 'epoux!" was sorrowful and soul-searching, and his reading of Ossian's poem was pleading and wrenchingly beautiful.
Kuhlmann, an American mezzo making her Met debut, was a little hesitant and muddy in the early scenes. By the final act, where most of Charlotte's part lies, we were treated to a radiant and expressive voice, well matched to Shicoff's robust tenor.
Dawn Upshaw was a light and lyrical Sophie, and was delightful in her carefree bouquet scene in Act II. Upshaw has a remarkably rich and clear high voice, and her Forest Bird in Siegfried next month should be wondrous.
Between these moments of musical splendor, the action did tend to plod, as did Jean Fournet's careful and measured conducting, but the evening was well worth it for Shicoff's singing alone.