MASSENET'S WERTHER, ROYAL OPERA HOUSE, COVENT GARDEN, 11 MAY 2011
Yes, he can. Rolando Villazon, that is. Sing. "Oui - c'est moi - je reviens," says Werther to Charlotte on his entry in act III. Yup, it's him, he's back - the Rolandoness is out in force: the truest of true tenors, fervent and full of personality and relishing his high notes. If we didn't know what he'd been through for the sake of that voice, would we have guessed during this performance? I don't believe so. Just a couple of very small moments of fuzzy intonation, but of course that can also happen to singers who've not been through anything at all. The tenor has to carry this opera all the way - and he did.
If 'Rolando' sounds like the name of one of those impossibly convoluted Handel opera plots (the one about the footballer?), Werther itself is anything but. On the train into town earlier, the doughty Tomcat asked me to tell him the story. I did. "Oh," he said. "Is that it?" It is. And Massenet lets it unfold at a ploddy andante for perhaps 85% of the time, starting off with children practising Christmas carols, only to reveal that it's July. Given the utter marvel that is Goethe, it's hard to see how anyone could have made quite such a clunky libretto out of it. But perhaps we shouldn't put any degree of naffness past the French bourgeoisie of the late 19th century.
At its best, Werther glows, shudders and engulfs. At its worst, you see exactly what Faure, Debussy and co were up against when they wanted to do something a little different. This score could almost be Tchaikovsky having a seriously bad day. Massenet's most original touches are in the orchestra - reserving the harp for Werther and, for Charlotte's big act III aria, an obbligato saxophone. Naturally, 'Pourquoi me reveiller?' never fails. Tony Pappano gave the whole evening what shape, momentum and sympathy he could.
Benoit Jacquot's production doesn't do very much to help, but for Charles Edwards' gorgeous lighting, suggesting low, slanting sunlight and long, long shadows. Poor old Albert (Audun Iversen) has no personality to begin with - the director could at least have given him some. There must be some reason that Charlotte's beloved mum wanted her to marry him, surely? And with these designs, it's certainly not his dress sense. This is not Iversen's fault - he has a lovely voice. The kiddies tried, but could do better - why oh why did Massenet have to risk wrecking the tragic end with out-of-tune yells of "Noel, Noel, Noel!" offstage? (At least it really is Christmas by now.) The two drunks (Darren Jeffrey and Stuart Patterson) are good fun and as Sophie - the one excuse for some livelier, scherzoid writing from Massenet - Eri Nakamura nearly stole the show. One to watch, there.
Sophie Koch is a strong-toned, suitably priggish and trapped Charlotte; and Villazon gives his all, though his acting did not entirely convince. He stood, gesticulated and delivered - and deliver he did - yet never inhabited the character as much as I longed for him to. The same production, when it was webcast from Paris via Medici TV - also with Sophie Koch, but starring Kaufmann as Werther - reduced me to a gibbering wreck in the comfort of my own study.
A pit star, though: concertmaster Peter Manning, whose personal and charismatic 'golden age' tone in his plentiful solos was simply fabulous; it lifted the whole sound onto another level whenever he had the chance. And speaking of solo violins, a final observation - Korngold appears to have pinched one of the music's sweeter effects, the off-beat violin echo in the act I love duet. If I remember right, it's in The Sea Hawk.
Here's a trailer from the ROH in which Pappano and Villazon talk about the show. Above, one of Rolando's own cartoons off his very fun website.