Massenet - Werther

Opéra National de Paris Bastille, Tuesday January 26 2010

Conductor: Michel Plasson. Production: Benoît Jacquot. Sets: Charles Edwards. Costumes: Christian Gasc. Werther: Jonas Kaufmann. Albert: Ludovic Tézier. Le Bailli: Alain Vernhes. Charlotte: Sophie Koch. Sophie: Anne-Catherine Gillet. Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris. Maîtrise des hauts-de-seine ⁄ chœur d’enfants de l’Opéra national de Paris.

Is Jonas Kaufmann the greatest living tenor? It certainly sounded that way the other evening. The first two acts of Werther may be a waste of time* (those drunkards! You might as well stay at the bar yourself), but things pick up considerably after the break and not for nothing is "Pourquoi me réveiller" a famous aria. His rendering (the word is appropriate in its painterliness) was magnificent. To be honest, as I don't listen much to recordings and though of course I'd heard of him many times, I'd never actually heard him before at all** (which is why I bought tickets: this Werther wasn't in my subscription). His voice is, to say the least, interesting. Not a "solar" tenor like Pavarotti, but a dark, baritonal one with a rich, smoky timbre ("ambered," wrote one critic) and a phenomenal dynamic range that allows him to spend most of his time not bawling out his lines but just "speaking" gently to the audience ("Werther as Lied" wrote another). Yet when he wants he can let rip with glorious high notes, spot on, open and full-bodied, still with that depth and richness of timbre. Definitely an exceptional singer, so much so that he had me thinking back to the (rare) likes of Margaret Price and Pavarotti. Not because his voice is in any way similar to Pavarotti's; but the same mysterious, "physico-acoustic" phenomenon enables Kaufmann to project his superb, crisp diction quite audibly and wholly understandably into a vast auditorium at ranges from pianissimo to mezzo forte. That, to me, is a unique quality of the truly greats, like Pavarotti, like Arleen Auger in Händel, like Price in Le Nozze in her prime: the ability to engage in quiet conversation with the audience most of the time, then let rip as required and knock their socks off. That Kaufmann is not short and fat does no harm either, no harm at all.

So Jonas Kaufmann tended to fascinate, dominating the cast. But Sophie Koch, had she had some ordinary tenor opposite, would surely have seemed remarkable too. She has matured into a very, very fine mezzo. Tézier, it seemed to me (and my neighbour, who remarked on it afterwards) was not at his finest, a slight disappointment only because he has set such high standards. Anne-Catherine Gillet's is a small voice for the Bastille, and somewhat girlish - but that, of course, fits the part, though the stage director did have the poor woman do some childish twirling around, too silly for her age.

Which was just about the full extent of his directing. This was another (I'm thinking of Mireille) total, apparently deliberate non-production, basically just leaving the singers to themselves. Nicolas Joël, the new boss of the Paris opera, is said to believe that casting - singing quality - should take precedence over the production. OK, why not? But it seems to me perverse to go to the trouble of assembling the best possible cast and not carry the project through by also going for the best possible production. Paris already had, only last season, one bad production (so I heard: I missed it) of Werther brought in from Germany. Why go to London and fetch a worse one (at who knows what cost)? And when people complain that "modern" productions are ugly, they should see the tacky sets for this "traditional" one: a high, papier-mâché wall (nothing sweet or lovely about this one) covered in dusty fake ivy, with a gate and fountain, for act one; a bare, paved terrace with a parapet and fallen leaves for act two; a grim, grey room with a window, a desk and a harpsichord, otherwise vast and empty, for act three.

And then, after two hours or so of nothing at all (other than some comical lighting effets: an abrupt change of light and a spot thrown on the hero as he sang "soleil"; a self-igniting candle on the harpsichord...), suddenly we have an obvious and unnecessary pistol-shot from behind the curtain between acts three and four, Charlotte racing through the auditorium to find the dying Werther, and the handsome lad himself in a tiny, shoebox, La Bohème garret that advanced slowly through the falling snow. And, though the singers had had to do nothing at all beforehand, they were now instructed to end the opera lying face down on the boards. Incomprehensible. But I fear we will have more of this perversity under Joël: excellent casts in (I've used the words before) aggressively provincial productions. "Neutral," a friend of mine said; but I disagree: this looks to me like a deliberate denial of the contribution a production is supposed to make and, as far as I'm concerned, shows a lack of respect for the singers, to whom it does a disservice.

This is probably not the place to start a discussion on the merits or otherwise of roping in film directors to stage operas, but the subject would make for an interesting article by someone clever enough to write it. Jacquot is apparently a well-known cineast. As usual in these cases, we find him admitting quite freely that, "complètement néophyte," he knows nothing about opera or the work in question. "I didn't know the piece, apart from two arias my grandmother used to sing to me when I was a child. Even then I didn't know at the time that they were from Werther! But I accepted (the offer from Pappano to direct Werther in London) knowing that the experience would be rich in suprises." If only the result had been so for the public. That an opera production by a film-maker would be a dud was no surprise at all, so often have we seen it before.

Plasson, now a sort of living national treasure alongside Prêtre and Boulez, lingered somewhat over the preliminaries and went, overall, for Romantic melancholy. The orchestra clearly love him (this matters at the Paris Opera) and were on their absolute best behaviour, even to the extent of staying in the pit to applaud instead of dashing off for a drink as the curtain still falls. That, at the Bastille, is a sign.

* Not so much this time, of course: there was Kaufmann to discover, and from his first notes my hair was on end.
** That, I realised later, wasn't true.