Spoiler alert – this opera does not end well.
The Metropolitan Opera opened Sir Richard Eyre’s production of Werther, a truly gut wrenching story about a lowly poet who falls head over heels for Charlotte, the oldest daughter of the city’s Bailiff. The prelude paired Massenet’s elegant orchestration with Wendall K. Harrington’s video projections. Together they served to take the audience on a journey from a warm summer evening, through autumn’s colorful foliage and finally to a chilling winter’s night where this story would come to an end. The projections were a welcomed, forward thinking addition that would engage patrons and provide detail to scenes and interludes throughout the opera. This subtle inclusion not only reinforced the establishment’s commitment to staying technologically relevant, it also transformed the evening into a more wholly inclusive celebration of artistic expression.
Act I presented a utopian picture of the bailiff’s family learning Christmas carols – oddly during the middle of summer. Maurizio Muraro led the chorus of children including Helena Abbott, Louis Bailey, Henry T. Balaban, Carolina De Salvo, Misha Grossman and Daniel Katzan. Their jovial singing and careless frolicking would soon dissipate as the plot continued to unfold.
Werther, sung by the universally popular Vittorio Grigolo, arrived at the bailiff’s house to escort Charlotte to the ball. He is immediately overcome by his surroundings singing “Je ne sai si je veille ou si je rêve encore!” (Am I awake, or do I still dream!). His aria O Nature pleine de grâce (Oh nature full of grace) demonstrates how easily and completely the young poet falls in love with beautiful things.
Speaking of beautiful things, Isabel Leonard was a picture of perfection. She stepped into the role of Charlotte with a demeanor invoking the kind of class and elegance one imagines existed centuries ago; quite a deviation from her previous Met roles as Stephano or Cherubino.
When the two return from the ball, Charlotte tells Werther that her mother has died. As a result, she took on the burden of caring for her father and seven siblings. Moved by her story and affected by their magical evening together, the poet declares his love for Charlotte. Her response, “I’m engaged.”
Act II is set in late September. Charlotte has married Albert, the man she promised her dying mother she would wed. They celebrate their marriage while Werther suffers the daily torment of unrequited love. He sings “Un autre est son époux!” (Another man is her husband!) He continues “It is I whom she could have loved… all my body shudders, and all my being weeps.” In yet another bout of fervor, Werther speaks of his love to Charlotte and again, she turns from him; this time, sending him into exile.
Christmas Eve has come and Charlotte spends the beginning of Act III obsessing over Werther’s love letters. She finally admits to herself that she loves him in a stoic, yet emotional rendition of Va! Laissez coulez mes larmes (Go! Let my tears flow!). Werther returns from exile completely unraveled. In a dismal mental state, he once again proclaims his unwavering love to Charlotte. Sensing she feels the same, Werther kisses Charlotte. Overcome with guilt, she tears herself from Werther’s arms. ”We must never meet again,” she says; the last nail in the proverbial coffin.
Aptly titled The Death of Werther, Act IV is set in the title character’s small, dingy room. Charlotte’s continued dismissal of her feelings drove him to shoot himself. We see Werther slowly bleeding out when Charlotte arrives. Though too late to save him, she admits that she has loved him since they first met. Content with her admission of love, Werther dies in her arms leaving Charlotte – gun in hand – to contemplate her fate.
The award for best supporting actor goes to… the children’s chorus! Their voices rang clear to the back of the theater. These kids were always in tune and sang with intelligible diction and a tremendous amount of energy. Anna Christie is a lovely soprano with a unique and memorable voice. While I applaud the motivation behind casting a soubrette in the role of Sophie, the natural beauty in her fach didn’t carry through to the end of phrases – most notably when singing over the children’s chorus. David Bizic was a safe, dependable Albert. He is a substantial talent but his interpretation of the role lacked subtext and personality.
All in all, Werther is worth the trip to Lincoln Center. Leonard is a breathtaking beauty with a voice to match and no tenor alive sings the pangs of forbidden love like Grigolo. Maestro Edward Gardener leads Metropolitan Opera Orchestra through Massenet’s winding dissonances and if all else fails, you’ll be treated to entrancing video projections and storybook sets by Rob Howell.
You can see Vittorio Grigolo and Isabel Leonard in Werther at the Metropolitan Opera through March 9th.