Massenet - Werther

"Baritone version," concert performance

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, April 29 2004

Conductor: Michel Plasson. Werther: Thomas Hampson. Charlotte: Susan Graham. Albert: Stéphane Degout. Sophie: Sandrine Piau. Le Bailli: René Schirrer. Schmidt: François Piolino. Johann: Laurent Alvaro. Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.

Excellent Werther. More Massenet, please

If there's anything wrong with Massenet, it isn't his music. Is it the words, then? Are his texts too soppy for modern tastes? Personally, I see no reason why, if people flock to something as soppy as La Bohème, they shouldn't flock to Massenet. His exoticism and overall "sexiness" ought these days to have broad appeal. There's a whole repertoire of French opera waiting for a revival, works that can be made to work provided houses find the right conductor and singers, willing to take them seriously and perform them with conviction. Those old Decca recordings taught us that. Wednesday's concert performance of Werther, in the version for baritone, with an excellent, committed cast, underlined the point.

Thomas Hampson and Susan Graham are so well-known you can easily imagine, in your mind's ear and without my help, how they sounded. Hampson, in one of his strange Oscar Wilde evening outfits and the same hair as Graham, combined the intelligence, phrasing and nuance of lieder singing with the power, projection and characterisation of opera - and some occasionally cloudy diction. We none of us grow younger, and I was sorry to note that his top notes are losing power. As in Les Troyens last year, Susan Graham seemed determined to throw herself into a work that was, at moments of vehemence, slightly beyond her means: the top notes are strained, with nothing left in reserve; but her medium remains golden and she, too, knows how to combine art-song and acting. Together, with their matching coiffures, they looked like a pair of American giants among the dark, diminutive French.

As in Tannhäuser a couple of weeks back, the supporting cast was strong. In the Wagner, our rising baritone was Ludovic Tézier, who is set to make a career in bloody melodrama. Stéphane Degout's career will be in the more "intelligent" roles in Mozart, Strauss and so on. He's a real "French baritone," singing with the good taste and elegance the words imply; and still young enough to be unable to resist a broad grin under applause. Sandrine Piau has come quite a long way from the baroque roles she was known for and is now a very decent, charming soprano for secondary roles in small houses. This sounds like damning with faint praise, I know, but somebody has to sing these parts.

Elsewhere on this forum, we've discussed Plasson and the "French sound." The Capitole orchestra had some of what to me are the faults of that French sound: soapy strings, some ragged attacks, subdued brass with cracked notes. But what a woodwind band! And there were magical moments: rippling harp, rustling strings, rising chords, heavy breathing, heaving bosoms, big tunes: Massenet displaying his full mastery... After years promoting French music, it's only to be expected that Plasson has Massenet in his blood. This was an outstanding evening, met with thunderous applause; roses showered down from the upper boxes, whole bouquets beaning both Hampson and Graham, who had to feign taking refuge behind Plasson and ended up with a large damp patch on her strapless pink silk gown...

Now, if only a breath of spring could wake up some of our opera houses...


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