WASHINGTON, March 31, 2014 — The New York Metropolitan Opera’s series of live, movie theater simulcast productions continued this month with a breathtaking, perhaps unsurpassable performance of Jules Massenet’s romantic but ultimately tragic “Werther.” Featuring tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and soprano Sophie Koch—in her long-awaited Met debut—as Werther’s beloved Charlotte, this beautifully sung production was as close to perfect as a performance of this haunting work will ever get.
Unfortunately, for the nearly sold out local theater audience that included this reviewer, “Werther’s” emotional, high-tragedy finale went suddenly soundless for roughly its final fifteen minutes, robbing passionate opera fans of the searing, dramatic payoff they’d waited nearly three hours to experience. The local audience here groaned in despair at the outage and its timing, an experience apparently shared by most theatergoers who attended the broadcast across the country and around the world as indicated in the New York Times’ “Artsbeat” report:
“Some angry operagoers took to Twitter to vent their frustrations. “Werther is dying a slow silent death!” one user said. Another lamented, “Missed quite possibly the most beautiful part of Werther.” A third described the scene as “surreal,” and added, “People in movie theater try to listen along with radio simulcast on phones.”
Massenet’s “Werther” (“ver-TARE” in French) is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s highly influential 1774 novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” Known in the U.S. primarily for his epic poetic drama in two parts, “Faust,” Goethe’s early novel chronicles the unhappy love life of a passionate young gentleman and poet.
Unfortunately, his dream of undying romantic love, the beautiful and sensitive Charlotte, has promised her dying mother she will marry a childhood neighbor and friend, Albert, who is now a soldier. Charlotte finds that she, herself, has fallen in love with Werther. Yet she chooses to keep her promise to her mother, engaging in a loveless marriage with the admirable Albert, while driving Werther to the cosmic despair that ultimately drives him to take his own life.
The novel was a sensation throughout Europe and, arguably, ignited the literary and artistic Romantic movement throughout Europe that burst forth on the cusp of the 19th century and, in many respects, persists to this day. It was hardly surprising that the novel, like the author’s later “Faust,” would inspire a number of musical adaptations.
French composer Jules Massenet’s passionate opera would certainly be numbered among the finest of these. In fact, Massenet’s continued presence on the opera stage today is largely dependent on “Werther” and his more popular “Manon.” Both are smaller, more intimate operas than Massenet’s showier grand operas which were truer to French traditions of the time—but are now viewed as too massive and too expensive to produce.
“Werther” premiered in Vienna in 1892 and proved a great success. In and out of the repertoire for years, it’s gained favor again in this century for its beautiful score and Romantic passion. Its orchestral score is notably rich in detail, including the rare and highly effective symphonic use of the saxophone in a key scene.
The Met’s lovely production moves the action from the warmth and color of spring to the story’s chilly end in Werther’s drab, cold, and wintry garret.
As we’ve already indicated, however, it’s this production’s romantic duo that really make the Met’s “Werther” something special. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s portrayal of the opera’s tragic hero, we think, will prove to be the gold standard for our time. Here is a tenor who has somehow shaped a seductive, lyric vocal gift around an instrument that can and does achieve the heights of Wagnerian authority and passion. Everything he sings is at once sensitive, brilliant, and Romantic. He is the soul and the anchor of this fine production.
Making things even more memorable is the sensitivity and purity soprano Sophie Koch brings to her role as the honest but troubled and confused Charlotte, a character we admire for her honor yet want to condemn for not following the lead of her heart. Ms. Koch possesses a rich, emotional voice that wraps sensuously around this difficult and at times unsympathetic role as she joins Charlotte’s personal agony to that of the doomed Werther.
As the odd man out in this uneven triangle, baritone David Bižić’s Albert leavens and deepens the tragedy. With his rich, friendly, reassuring voice and manner, Mr. Bižić portrays Albert as a decent, honest man, deeply in love with Charlotte himself while sensitive to the fact that she remains somehow distant from him. While he allows himself to becomåe at least partially complicit in Werther’s decision to halt an affair with Charlotte before it gains altitude, he seems incapable of bitterness, adding to the over all sense of this opera’s inevitable tragedy.
The only problem we experienced in this otherwise exquisite HD broadcast was purely technical. In a marvelous bit of staging, Werther’s final scene takes place in this production in the small, gray, distant, ice-cold garret room where he has taken the borrowed brace of pistols from Albert to bring his doomed passion to its logical end.
Werther’s not-immediately-fatal pistol shot is surprisingly gruesome, horrifying Charlotte who has impetuously gone to stop him but also launching the ill-fated pair on their final love duets as Werther’s life fades away.
Yet it was at precisely this dramatic moment that the audio cut out of the HD broadcast, leaving bitterly disappointed theatergoers with only with the visuals. Adding insult to injury, the sound returned just after the curtain fell once the final notes had faded away.
This reviewer strongly suspected a technical problem at the theater to be at fault. It was at this very theater that a 4+ hour Wednesday re-broadcast of the Met’s colorful “Prince Igor” was launched fifteen minutes late due to the fact that no one on the theater staff had bothered to crank up the digital projector—until yours truly sought out the manager and complained.
But in the case of “Werther,” the theater, at least in this case, was not at fault. Apparently, as is often the case with our sophisticated electronics and machinery, the Met’s satellite and/or satellite feed chose to cut out the audio at the worst possible moment.
The company experienced related problems a few weeks ago in yet another HD broadcast, although the brief outages in that production were explained in a screen graphic pointing out that random solar activity would likely result in some problems during that broadcast—a known issue in satellite transmissions.
We wonder, though, if the Met or its engineers can find a better way to work through this particular issue. While ticket-wise, the Met’s beautiful HD broadcasts are a bargain compared to the price of a good orchestra seat at the Met itself, theater ticket prices are still noticeably above average for these productions. Audiences should be able to expect more reliability.
On the other hand, the technology is what it is. The Met did quickly provide an online promise that they’d provide a streaming version of the finale for disappointed theatergoers. And indeed they have, and you can find it by clicking on this link.
We’ve also read that as a backup strategy, some HD theatergoers are routinely bringing electronic devices such as iPhones to the theater to pull in the Met’s radio simulcasts—just in case. It’s a clunky but eminently worthy backup plan which is why we’re relating it to you here.
At any rate, setting that untimely satellite glitch aside, save for those missing 15 minutes or so, the Met’s HD fans truly enjoyed a “Werther” for the ages. It might not be a bad idea for the company to mount this same production again with the same stars in the reasonably near future. Mr. Kaufmann and Ms. Koch have magnificently defined their respective roles for us and we’re sure enthusiastic audiences would be delighted to experience this magic once again.
Upcoming this week, the Met’s next HD production will be perhaps the most popular opera of all time, Puccini’s “La Bohème,” in the legendary Zefirelli production we were lucky enough to catch here in Washington a number of years ago. The music is wonderful, the production is as lavish as one will ever see on stage, and if you’re interested, you’ll want to reserve your tickets now.
We’ll have a preview of this production coming up shortly, so watch here for details.
The Metropolitan Opera’s HD simulcast of Massenet’s “Werther”:
Ratings: **** (4 out of 4 stars) for the exceptionally high quality of the production.
½ (One-half out of 4 stars) for the technical problem that robbed the audience of the finale.
Note: Headline photo of Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch courtesy of the NY Metropolitan Opera, photo credit: Ken Howard.