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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 11, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 10
New Werther is one for the ages
Arts & Entertainment
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New Werther is one for the ages

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Werther
l'Opéra national de Paris
DVD from Decca


It is with great joy that I announce the release of this sad, sad DVD. The story is sick, sick, sick; but the music is composed with such brilliance and sung with such passion and artistry that I get swept up in the mad love and forgive the tenor his illness. Multiple viewings have not diminished the effect!

Indeed, when Jonas Kaufmann declares his love for Charlotte as they return home from an evening out, I don't see how any mezzo could not be utterly carried off. She tells him at the outset that he is mad, but she can't help but surrender to the intensity of his passion. And neither will you, if you watch this superb DVD of Massenet's Werther from l'Opéra national de Paris. Once again, as in his recent Carmen DVD, Kaufmann works miracles with his supreme artistry, complete vocal control, and drop-dead good looks, to convince us that his sick passion for an unobtainable woman is somehow inevitable even if utterly self-destructive.

I can't tell you how utterly bored I am with such stories in general. In fact, I approach most Carmen productions with dread. But Kaufmann transforms Werther and Carmen into the great art that I'm sure their composers intended. He is aided and abetted here by excellence on all sides. Michel Plasson is to Massenet what Toscanini was to Verdi. His orchestral shadings and pulses of passion are idiomatic and tied to the heart. Tempi are on the slow side, but that just gives us time to savor Massenet's genius. The sound on the DVD is superb, even if it isn't Blu-ray.

In fact, there is a level of sonic sophistication I have not noticed before on opera videos: When the camera pulls away to give more distant shots of the whole stage, the singer's voice suddenly sounds more distant, with a noticeable bit of hall resonance not present during close ups. (This subtle effect may apply only when auditioned on surround-sounds systems.)

On another technical note, camera shots are not confined to what the audience sees. Instead, we get angles from off stage behind the singer as he or she is about to enter, even including the stage person giving the cue to go. When effective, there are also shots from directly above, high above the singer. This may sound intrusive or distracting, but it is handled with such finesse that it is instead refreshing and fun. Oh, there are the usual facial close-ups, but gone, I think, are the days of excess when Brian Large gave us intimate views of Jessye Norman's quivering tongue!

Charlotte is beautifully sung and acted by mezzo Sophie Koch. She is lovely when she is not singing, but her vocal technique involves unfortunate grimaces that greatly reduce her appeal. Usually such facial distortions (as with Cecilia Bartoli) don't bother me, but somehow this case mattered quite a lot. But her singing is terrific in all ranges - high or low, loud or soft.

All other singers are top-notch. Ludovic Tézier sings with a consummate vocal line and lovely tone. The exquisite lyric soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet could not be more delightful, and her coloratura is spot-on. Le Bailli, Charlotte's father, is Alain Vernhes, a fine French singing actor.

In the next week or two, I'll have a review of Jonas Kaufmann's recital at L.A. Opera. The art of singing recitals is very different from singing on stage in an opera. We shall see if he has mastered it.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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