Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Between Duty and the Devil" (on Massenet's Werther)

between duty and the devil

by Douglas Messerli

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.


     What became more apparent than ever in this production is that, as opposed to the conventionality of both Werther and Charlotte, most of the rest of the opera’s figures—despite their outward celebration of the local parson and clichés of cultural obedience—are far more willing to bend to the joy of daily pleasures. Several times in Werther, characters sing out in praise of Bacchus, particularly early in the opera when we first meet The Bailiff’s (Jonathan Sommers) friends, Johannn (Philip Cokorinnos) and Schmidt (Tony Stevenson), who while mocking Werther’s seriousness, themselves sing of the wine and crayfish they are looking forward to at the local pub. Despite the Bailiff’s more serious demeanor and his insistent demand that his children perform adequately a Christmas carol he currently teaching them, he too speaks of Bacchus and, through his daughter’s Sophie’s encouragement, is easily convinced to join his friends at the pub.

     Although both Werther and Charlotte may see the children as “angels,” the children themselves act up and mock several of their superiors behind they backs. Only in Charlotte’s gentle care to they truly act angelically.

     Although Charlotte’s 15-year old sister, Sophie, is a pleasant and gentle girl who, when Charlotte is away at the ball, lovingly cares for his siblings, she has her own way of not taking things seriously, at the pastor’s wedding anniversary party singing of the joyfulness of the day and weather, while flirtatiously inviting Werther to dance with her at the celebration. In Act III she, similarly, attempts to cheer up her distraught older sister, who has now realized through Werther’s anguished epistles how much she is in love with him rather than her often fatuous and inattentive husband, Albert (David Bižić).

      In such a bacchanalian world of wine, women, dance and, in Sophie’s case, just the joy of living, the two heroes of the piece become tragic representatives of conventional faith and duty, a fact that, by opera’s end Charlotte has come to realize—that forged her with chains to Werther from the first time she set eyes upon him. Two of Werther’s most touching songs—his Act II disquisition on God’s response if he were to commit suicide (Werther’s version of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be,” “Lorsque l’enfant revient d’un voyage”) and his stunningly sad recitation of one of his translations of Ossian—center on death, as does Charlotte’s Act II aria (“Va, laisse couler mes larmes”), a prayer for moral fortitude. While the others dance around them with the zest of living beings, these two suffer, mostly in silence except to the opera’s audience, unable to survive in the devil’s bacchanal of daily life. Although seen as everyone else as models of moral certitude, they are, in the real world in which they are forced to live, the most tenuous of beings. Is it any wonder, then, that they end their lives in a passionate embrace and kiss that resembles the high Romantic sacrificial pattern of “love, death, and transfiguration.” Although Massenet’s work is far more intimate and modest that Wagner’s great Tristan and Isolde, it is, at its heart, a similar tale, a tale of two lovers doomed by social and cultural conventions they feel are beyond their control, while the others, those on the side of the devil—according to Werther and Charlotte’s way of seeing things—are free to enjoy their lives and survive.

       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!”


Los Angeles, March 16, 2014

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