Massenet - Werther

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday December 16 2007

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production: Guy Joosten. Werther: Andrew Richards. Le Bailli : Gilles Cachemaille. Charlotte : Sophie Koch. Sophie : Hendrickje Van Kerckhove. Albert : Jean-François Lapointe. Schmidt : Yves Saelens. Johann : Lionel Lhote. Käthchen : Anneke Luyten. Brühlmann : Olivier Berten. Orchestra and children's chorus of La Monnaie.

To cut a long story short, this Brussels production of Werther was a lot better in the second half than the first, possibly because that's the way Werther is, but more probably on account of the production.

Now for the long story, production first.

This was basically a single-set staging with a change of props per act. The permanent space was triangular, with pale grey, flat-panelled walls meeting in a point at the rear. Set into this was, in acts one to three, a basic bourgeois interior: a door and a window in walls "papered" with a romantic landscape that changed colour with the seasons/acts, and a black wooden floor pointing out towards the audience, slightly raised, with white strip lights under the two edges. In act one, this smaller space contained a desk and vaguely Biedermeier-style chairs; in act two, a long rustic table and benches for the drunken men to slouch on; in act three, a giant Christmas tree. In act four, it wasn't there, leaving just Werther crouched in the corner, covered in blood, and those empty grey walls, now spattered with blood. Empty except that, throughout, they displayed a horizontal line of speared butterflies - a nod, I guessed, at what Ivy Compton-Burnett called "power and the abuse of power" in the Victorian middle classes and their dire effect on women and children.

Which brings us to the director's "idea": to look into the shady corners of late 19th-century bourgeois family life (for him, Werther is a pure product of Massenet's time that owes little to Goethe). In this production - apart from Werther himself, who hardly ever steps into the family "triangle" - the men are gluttonous, drunken, lascivious brutes whose gestures hint at sexual and/or child abuse and incest, the women and children cower together and flinch away. The idea is fair enough and could be made to work, but here didn't (I wondered if the director had actually been in Brussels to re-stage the production, which, if I remember correctly, dates back to 2000). Neither sets nor costumes (Charlotte's ill-fitting, old-maidish dress and shawl in act one, for example) were up to international standards, and the blocking and acting in acts one and two were stiff, holding back - I thought - the singers*.

But in Werther, acts three and four ditch the supporting cast (and in this case also, in the absence of the boorish men-folk, the production Konzept) and leave everything to Werther and Charlotte; they were thus able to come into their own and let rip. Which they did. The young American tenor Andrew Richards tried perhaps even too hard but shows definite promise of a Carreras kind, if he can learn to achieve a more even timbre throughout the range and avoids the temptation to strain his voice by showing off. Sophie Koch was simply splendid. Having heard her only as the Composer at the Bastille, I'd noted her rich, bronze timbre but had no idea her voice was so powerful. She made a convincingly good-looking Charlotte, and acted up a storm.

The supporting cast was strong but somehow reduced to irrelevance in this production, which only took off, as I said, in the second half.

As to the music, Ivy Compton-Burnett came to mind again. She wrote, about God: "But if you have him […] I like him not childless, and grasping and fond of praise." My feeling about Massenet is that if I'm going to have him, I like him lush, exotic, steamy... I suppose that's silly when the story's Werther, but even so I'd have liked a less tasteful, less "neo-classical" sound from the pit - Massenet not Mendelssohn. Oh well.

Guy Joosten claimed in the programme notes that Werther is really Charlotte's opera. It certainly was here. What, according to the chatty usherette, it was not, despite the Christmas theme and tree, was an appropriate show for the festive season. Personally, I don't mind: I was quite amused one Christmas when the Paris opera scheduled Ivan the Terrible as its seasonal ballet...

*I wrote this in Wales, visiting my family for Christmas and, since writing, have been forced, after a heavy lunch, to watch Uptown Girls on TV (a fine example of "power and the abuse of power" in the family). I now feel fastidious for complaining about acting standards in opera, which it emerges are positively Shakespearean compared to modern Hollywood.


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