Edouard Blau, Paul Millet, and Georges Hartmann (libretto, based on Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), Jules Massenet (music) Werther / 1892 / the production I saw was a High Definition Digital broadcast on March 15, 2014.
The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Werther makes it more clear than ever that Werther (the remarkable Jonas Kaufman) and his beloved Charlotte (Sophie Koch) belong together, while standing apart from the others of the work. As my spouse Howard commented, both are costumed in clothes—mostly gray with a white bodice in Werther’s case, and pearl-white or white with a dark overcoat in Charlotte’s—that stand in opposition to the others of the work. Although the melancholic Werther is willing to risk everything for love, he is, nonetheless, like her, a man who adores children and believes in duty. Indeed, his absolute love for Charlotte is based on her conventional values, her determination to care for her brothers and sisters after their mother’s death and to remain true to her promise to her mother that she will marry Albert, a kindly militarist, who by opera’s end all but accuses his wife of unfaithfulness, forcing her to herself send the pistols for which Werther has asked in order to kill himself since Charlotte has refused to give into his sexual assaults.
As the great Jonas Kaufman suggested during an intermission discussion of this HD presentation of the Met production, in this pre-Freudian drama, there is no way that Werther or Charlotte might see the error of their ways, to psychologically comprehend their entrapment in the dichotomy of “Totem and Taboo.” The problem for modern audiences, accordingly is to try to keep Werther (and also Charlotte) as credible figures, despite their manias, with whom we can identify. Both Kaufman (in one of the best operatic performances of the year) and Koch accomplished that!
Unfortunately in the last moments of Werther’s death, when the two sing of their passion and Werther is transfigured by the sound of the children singing, once again, “Noel Noel Noel,” the sound of the broadcast disappeared. Several members of the contemporary audience with whom we shared the theater suddenly became like children, shouting out for others to sing, or, in the most horrific of experiences, two elderly women stupidly commenting in loud voices on the slow death of Werther: “Is she dead too? Oh, he’s still living. She’s covered with blood. Oh he’s still singing. Is she going to shoot herself?” etc. etc. Most of the audience members tried simply to imagine the emotional impact by following the subtitles, but for these adult-children the grand opera had simply fallen apart, the credibility that Kaufman had so brilliantly accomplished completely disappearing from the art. At times like these, one can only wonder why some people had been attracted to such a memorable opera broadcast in the first place, leaving the theater as they cried out, “I want my money back!”