Jules Massenet wrote some thirty operas and was esteemed by contemporaries as the most successful French operatic composer of the French Belle Époque. He wrote in every genre from grand opera to operetta. Yet apart from Manon and Werther and occasional outing of Don Quichotte, his output is now little explored. This is regrettable, given his easy command of the tradition of charm and lyrical grace associated with Thomas and Gounod, and his ready assimilation of selected elements of Wagnerian innovation (through-written music from which arias naturally emerged, some modified use of leading themes, and natural declamatory word-setting). He was also a brilliant orchestrator, a skill developed through serving time as a percussionist in several pit bands. He had all the relevant talents and when, as here, the performers and creative team respond fully to the technical and stylistic challenges, even a familiar work such as Werther can come up as entirely fresh and arresting.
Massenet is often criticised for softening Goethe’s bleak tale of the conflict between love and duty by allowing Charlotte in the end to reciprocate Werther’s feelings. But what works in a novel devoted to exploring the anguish of the individual Romantic psyche does not necessarily work on stage; and while the plot and characterisation here could never be described as deep, there are continuous opportunities explore different perspectives on romance, loyalty to tradition, family and community, all leavened at points by humour, social realism and colourful subsidiary characters. The dramatic parallels with that contemporary Italian masterpiece La Bohème, are quite striking.
It is hard to see how this revival of Benoît Jacquot’s production could be better done. Antonio Pappano, in the pit, has a long relationship with this piece, and applies both rubato and dramatic incisiveness of gesture with deft care and experience. The Royal Opera House Orchestra responds with both virtuosic flair and pared-down delicacy, as needed – many scenes have essentially a chamber music feel to them. The standard of singing is uniformly fine across all the minor characters, including the charming chorus of children, whose Christmas carols are both charming and poignant. Yuriy Yurchuk and François Piolino are particularly humorous as two hard-drinking, roister-doister neigbours. There is also excellent work from Heather Engerbretson as Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, and David Bizic, as Albert, Charlotte’s husband.
This opera, however, stands or falls on the quality of its leads, and here we benefit from luxury casting in the form of mezzo-soprano Joyce Didonato and tenor Vittorio Grigòlo. While they have not performed together before, there is clearly a real chemistry between them, and their acting together is credible and empathetic throughout. Didonato rightly plays Charlotte, not as a vulnerable, clueless ingénue, but as a mature woman acutely aware of the consequences of choices. There is a restraint to her performance early on that draws you into her personal dilemma very movingly. This is especially evident in the ‘letter scene’ of Act 3, and then the pay-off comes when she lets herself go in the final love duet during Werther’s death scene. Grigòlo has the heroic, full-on tenor voice needed for this role, and dispatches the technical challenges with relish and panache. He also avoids the trap of emotional exaggeration and self-pity that can befall singers in this role, and finds plenty of humour and light and shade in the earlier scenes.
Sets and lighting by Charles Edwards and costumes by Christian Gasc are important ingredients of the success of this production. The period and location of the original novel – 1780s Wetzlar – are observed meticulously, exploring deep diagonals in the public scenes and then narrowing the focus in the final acts to a particularly bleak set of winter interiors.
The best tribute to pay this production is that its outstanding ensemble qualities leave you thinking that a fine opera is in fact a great one.