domingo, abril 26, 2015

“Werther”, Goethe seen through Massenet´s sensibility

            "Werther" is a special case in Jules Massenet´s career: his only opera based on a German subject has become the most famous of this very French composer, overpassing "Manon", his greatest success during his life and afterwards up to the Nineteen Sixties. In BA "Manon" reigned. It was offered in 29 seasons against the 13 of the Goethe-based opera (including the current one). But in the last half-century things have changed: 7 times "Werther" and only 4 "Manon". It must be added that we´ve seen many "Werthers"  outside the Colón. 

            Well,  "Werther" is attractive.  As the epistolar novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" dates from 1774, it is curious that it took more than a century to find the composer who would transform it into an opera (premièred in Vienna -1892- and in German translation, for Massenet didn´t find support in Paris).

            It is a strange thing that this semi-autobiographical account of the desperate love of a young man for Charlotte (promised and then  married to another man) ends with a long-announced suicide, for this is supposed to be the "Mal du siècle" in the Nineteenth-Century, but fact is that in Germany there was a turbulent literary (and briefly musical) movement called "Sturm und Drang" ("Storm and Impulse"), clearly Romantic, represented both by Goethe and Schiller,  and this happened in what are supposed to be Classicist times (Mozart, Haydn).

            The libretto was written by three successive hands: Paul Milliet, Georges Hartmann and Édouard Blau.            Some of it is good, especially in the Third Act, but the opera should have been concentrated on the main characters. The tiring old drunkards Johann and Schmidt are quite out of place. The music reflects Werther´s rising anguish as well as Charlotte´s sadness in her two "airs" ("des lettres", "des larmes"). The contrast is provided by Charlotte´s 15-year-old sister Sophie and by her avuncular father, the Burgomaster, and the six smaller children.

            Why did "Werther" inaugurate this Colón season? It was a replacement for something much more difficult, expensive and important: the première of the complete version of "Les Troyens", the magnum opus by Hector Berlioz (only seen in a condensed version in 1964). It had to be discarded by former Colón Director Pedro Pablo García Caffi due to money problems. I  hope that the new Director, Darío Lopérfido, will take up the challenge and give us that indispensable opera next year.

            But García Caffi chose wrong: not only the Colón didn´t need another "Werther" (the last was as recently as 2007, when the Colón did its season at the Coliseo), but Buenos Aires Lírica had announced last year its own "Werther" for this season. Why not the long-awaited "Thaïs", missing since 1952? Or the première of "Le Cid"? Or the charming "Cendrillon", only done in the inaugural season , 1908?

            As to the double cast: the book of the season announces renowned tenor Ramón Vargas, but he cancelled allegedly because of ill health (the Colón as usual said nothing); so Mickael Spadaccini, of the second cast, passed to the first, and Gustavo López Manzitti was hired for the second. Unfortunately this left Juventus Lyrica without its first cast Andrea Chénier (in such collisions the Colón always wins).

            Other changes: the second cast Sophie, Olena Tokar, was replaced by Oriana Favaro; and Cristian De Marco was added as a second "Bailli" (Burgomaster).

            Spadaccini is a young personable Belgian with an Italian surname. The voice is fresh and beautiful; it sounds very French. He still has to ameliorate certain details of line but he can sing softly or passionately loud and he moves with the agility of his age, following the emotions of his desperate character. As ever, López Manzitti is reliable; the voice is powerful and firm and he acts with intensity; I only missed sheer beauty of timbre and more "piano" singing.

            Anna Caterina Antonacci had sung here almost twenty years ago a wonderful Monteverdi Poppea. Now her Charlotte impressed me as a distinguished singer in decline, especially short in volume, though always tasteful and intelligent. But Clémentine Margaine was a revelation: the best French voice heard here in ages, with impressive volume and a dramatic sense of phrasing similar to Crespin.

            Sophie was perfectly sung by Jaquelina Livieri, with the light timbre and easy phrasing the role needs, and Favaro was quite close to the mark. Albert shouldn´t look as mature as Hernán Iturralde, nor be sung with little involvement. The young Turkish baritone Sertkaya made a brilliant debut; the drama is intensified if the husband is young (Goethe specifies 25) and personable, and the voice is full and resonant.

            Alexander Vassiliev (debut) was a convincing Bailli, and so was De Marco. Fernando Grassi (Johann) and Santiago Burgi and Iván Maier (Schmidt) did reasonably well their thankless parts. The six kids of the Children´s Choir were splendid both singing and uninhibitedly acting.                      

            The Orchestra was in the experienced hands of Ira Levin, and the results were quite good, contrasting turbulence and subtlety.

            Hugo de Ana did everything stagewise: production, stage, costumes and lighting, plus abundant projections. I admire his skills but not his ideas. He transposes the action to Massenet´s time, clutters the proceedings with forced metaphores (the letters strewn all over the place, the cemetery) and does  a unit set that gives no ambience suggesting intimate spaces in Wetzlar. At least he marked well the dramatic instances. 

For Buenos Aires Herald 

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