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What About Me? Hysterical Poet Commits Suicide at Met

Jonas Kaufmann as the title character in Massenet's
Jonas Kaufmann as the title character in Massenet's "Werther." Photographer: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via Bloomberg

Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Me! It’s all about me! Opera is full of narcissistic creatures with histrionic disorders, but is there anyone quite like young Werther?

Massenet’s opera about the suicidal poet opened on Tuesday at the Metropolitan Opera in an unfortunate new production featuring the greatest tenor of today: Jonas Kaufmann.

“Werther,” first heard in 1892, has lots of tenor arias, beginning with the scene-setting ode to nature. Every leaf in the woods glowed as Kaufmann looked around and sang with that velvety tone that is his alone.

New to the neighborhood, Werther has arrived at the house of the poised yet humble Charlotte to accompany her to a ball. Enchanted by her country ways, he immediately plans for the future only to learn that she promised her dying mother to marry Albert, a local bore, probably a lawyer.

“Un autre! Son epoux!” he gasps as the orchestra thunders his horror.

Over the next three acts, the virtuous young woman of Wetzlar, Germany, deflects Werther’s increasingly desperate cries.

I Want Charlotte

Goethe (1749-1832) was just in his 20s when he wrote “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” partly basing his epistolary novel on a Lotte he adored and the suicide of a young friend.

Werther’s letters darken as the joys of the world become completely entwined with what he cannot have: a life with Charlotte.

Even though 100 years had passed by the time the French Massenet wrote his opera, their spirits comingled in a rare fusion of text and sound. He captured the Sturm und Drang that sends Werther careening toward death.

Vengefully shooting himself with her husband’s pistol, Werther dies very slowly in her arms as the sobbing Charlotte finally addresses him with the familiar “tu.”

That duet is a brilliant invention -- in Goethe’s story, she faints as a messenger arrives with the news of his death.

The Met’s staging is by Richard Eyre, who moves the show into the 19th century, a silly idea with grave consequences, including cluttered sets and ghastly costumes.

Unenlightened Look

Honoring the original period is sometimes best for a piece. “Werther” is not a story of the corseted Belle Epoque, but the diaphanous Enlightenment of the 1770s.

Everyone at the Met looks like they escaped a production of “The Merry Widow,” though Werther’s dreary long coat would be nice for a Sicilian funeral.

If Eyre has any insight into these people, it doesn’t come through; especially not Werther’s preening. He loves his blue jacket, leggings and yellow vest. It’s perverse in an uninteresting way to deprive him of a look that would become the rage in Europe for young men who read Goethe -- with a few engaging in copycat suicides.

Rob Howell’s sets are crooked. I guess that would be to reflect Werther’s unbalanced personality? Isn’t that idea a bit dated?

And might it be time to ban staging overtures? Eyre mimes the funeral of Charlotte’s mutti as we are trying to listen to Massenet’s ravishing prelude.

A few pretty projections by Wendall K. Harrington of ravens and fluttering leaves almost erased the painful memory of an opening scrim devoted to a Joyeux Noel greeting card. (Werther chooses Christmas to die).

Dramatic Frenzy

In the pit, Alain Altinoglu conducted with sweeping gestures at a lifeless pace until the last act, for which the impressive French mezzo Sophie Koch, in her Met debut, worked herself into a dramatic frenzy, having freed herself of a perilously attached pancake hat.

The last duet with Kaufmann was memorably beautiful. Such radiant singing seared the heart and provoked one of the greatest ovations in recent memory.

But not before Eyre had Charlotte pick up a pistol to shoot herself. What? Nothing in the story suggests anything so grossly melodramatic.

For an antidote, look to William Makepeace Thackeray who rhymed: “Charlotte, having seen his body borne before her on a shutter, like a well-conducted person, went on cutting bread and butter.”

“Werther” is in repertoire until March 15. The production was made possible by Elizabeth M. and Jean-Marie R. Eveillard.

Kaufmann and Koch also star in a striking period production directed by Benoit Jacquot for the Bastille Opera in Paris, available on Amazon.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg news. Any opinions are her own.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Brecher at jbrecher4@bloomberg.net

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