MASSENET
Werther

Baliff: M. Trempont
Johann: J. Courtney
Schmidt: B. Fitch
Sophie: R. Evans
Werther: T. Hampson
Charlotte: S. Graham
Bruehlmann: M. Sendrowitz
Katchen: L. Hamilton
Albert: C. Robertson
Conductor: D. Runnicles

Broadcast

Unlike the case in Italy, Werther is still considered a rarity in America, soany staging is noteworthy. Like the majority of Met productions, this one by RudolphHeinrich is firmly in the realistic camp. Each act begins with a tableau vivant behind ascrim, which then comes to life at the appropriate time in the score. The first act boastsa solidly-constructed house with steps leading up to a large doorway. The foyer inside islarge enough for the children to assemble before coming outside. Werther enters a gateplaced at a higher level in the back and descends to the garden to escort Charlotte to theball. (A toy wheelbarrow, which Fernando Corena in one of his many memorable characterportrayals as Charlotte's father used to wheel about before going to meet his drinkingbuddies has finally been turned into a planter for white daisies in this edition of theproduction.) Act II features the Golden Grape Inn to the right with a wooden platform forthe outdoor tables and chairs, all enclosed within a balustrade topped by red geraniums. Agrove of trees on the left is where Werther meets Charlotte, Sophie and Albert separately.Lit by burning candles in wall sconces, Albert's study is chock full of books. An unusedpiano stands at the left while the main entrance, used by both Werther and Albert, is atthe rear. Following without a break, Act IV displays the interior of Werther's dwellingsurrounded by bushes and trees outside. Costumes are of the period of the Goethe romanza:the women in this German town sport modified panniers and the men would not be out ofplace in Friedrich's early Romantic paintings. In a quaint touch, an antiqued framesurmounted by a medallion with Goethe's silhouette is nestled within the Met prosceniumarch.

The novelty of this broadcast is that this edition was prepared by Massenet in 1902 forbaritone Mattia Battistini to assume the title role. Only two recorded excerpts remainfrom what appears to have been Battistini's great triumphs as Werther during the remainderof his career. As yet unpublished, this version appears not to have been performed againuntil about ten years at the Seattle Opera with Dale Dusing in the title role. Massenet'sadjustments were limited to the tenor part and did not involve complete rewriting, as wasthe case for the mezzo version of La Sonnambula prepared for Malibran. Listeners will notethe most differences between the baritone edition and the standard one in Werther's vocalline in Act II, where the tenor's languid, flowing melody destroyed by transposing thehigh notes down an octave. For many it will sound like a tenor marking his music on a dayhe is suffering with a heavy cold. A characteristic part of the orchestration is thesaxophone, which represents Charlotte's melancholy in Act III. 

Undoubtedly Thomas Hampson will look good in the part. On stage he is engaging, and therole will offer him many moments in which he can carry over his considerable talents as arecitalist. Throughout the opera, Werther repeatedly pauses to apostrophise, and hereHampson should be at his most credible in the part. For the radio audience, it may provedifficult to easily distinguish between Werther and Albert, although visually the singersare different enough. Christopher Robertson is tall and large-framed while Hampson is ofmedium height and build. Likewise Rebecca Evans, the Sophie, is petite while Susan Grahamis tall and majestic as Charlotte. To the listener they might sound all too similar,mainly because Graham is one of the many sopranos in hiding today, who, for reasons knownonly to them or their teachers, chose to develop only the lower part of their voices eventhough the mezzo color and lower extension are not present.

The casting for this broadcast is a far cry from that for the first performances ofthis production in 1971: Franco Corelli as a stunning Werther, Christa Ludwig an equallypassionate Charlotte and true coloratura soprano Judy Blegen as Sophie. This was animportant revival because Werther had not been performed at the Met since the early yearsof this century, and it brought the repertory a bit more in line with the buddinginternational interest in French opera. Subsequent editions at different times featuredAlfredo Kraus and Régine Crespin.

Leading the performance will be Donald Runnicles, one of today's many "conductingpersonalities". Music director for the San Francisco Opera, his blustery readings ofWagner, Strauss and Berg are currently heard around the musical world. Runnicles is an oddpick, given the Met's traditional reliance on second- or third-choice French-bornconductors, who at least brought coherence to the operas of Massenet and his compatriots.Another possibility would be Julius Rudel, who led many of Beverly Sills's triumphs in theFrench repertory at New York City Opera. The high point of the broadcast might very wellbe the superbly-trained children's chorus, which more than holds its own both on the vocaland acting sides.

David Lipfert

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