Isabel Leonard, Charlotte. Juan Diego Flórez, Werther.
As I step into the Royal Opera House’s stylish new café, there is the familiar Covent Garden buzz. It’s the opening night of Werther, and also the start of the new opera season. The talking points are Joyce di Donato’s upcoming title role in Agrippina. She was also in the last 2016 performance of Werther, alongside the flamboyant Italian tenor, Vittoria Grigolo. Would the 2019 Werther, sung by Juan Diego Flórez, match Grigolo’s high octane performance in 2016?
I had been gripped by Grigolo’s ROH debut in Werther, a broadcast of which I saw at the cinema. The camera angles were daring: I remember a close up of Grigolo’s pulsating vocal folds as he hit the high notes.
Werther is all psychological drama. The narrative is bare but doesn’t feel so because of the richness of the music. In parts Jules Massenet, the French composer, shows his love for Wagner, in others, sorrowful and heart-rending music of great delicacy .
On the September 17th opening of the latest Werther, it took me a while to warm to Flórez’s Werther. While Grigolo’s performance had a Hollywoodian appeal, Flórez brought a quieter, more anguished, interpretation of the role. But I believe it was more effective. True, the voice didn’t have the heft of Grigolo’s. In parts it seemed to be competing with the orchestra. In Act III however I was won over by his rendering of the blood-tingling Pourquoi me réveiller’/What is the use of waking me. There, his silken voice and wonderfully nuanced interpretation earned him huge applause.
But leading tenors do not act alone. Fresh from the Met was the ROH debut of mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard. What a voice she has with acting skills to boot. The role of Charlotte is difficult because the character is dutiful, prosaic, and perhaps even slightly dull. She’s a magistrate’s daughter with maternal responsibilities enforced on her from an early age, due to the death of her mother. She is sister to Sophie, sung and played confidently by Heather Engebretson, who also performed the role with Joyce Di Donato. She is also promised to the worthy Albert.
When Leonard mourned her mother, she did so to perfection in Act I. The scene reveals all the emotion she has held back. Werther, however, has the key to her heart. In Act III, when Charlotte reads Werther’s letters, she is overcome. The timing is tragic. She has married Albert.
Isabel Leonard and Jacques Imbrailo
So for several reasons, Jacques Imbrailo has a job on his hands singing Albert. Projecting dog-like devotion for your wife is hard to do in opera. He could have come across as a smug fool in Act II, sitting proudly beside his new wife. And yet he doesn’t. For one thing he cuts a dashing figure as a young man in a burgundy frock coat (he has no paunch, he is not old). Two, the sky above Albert and Charlotte is a pale blue Joshua Reynolds’s sky with beautiful white cotton wool clouds of harmony disappearing into infinity. Soon to disappear of course. We feel pity for the one who sees beauty, where in fact there is unhappiness.
Finally Imbrailo’s mellifluous, expressive voice. One well-known opera reviewer behind me said to his neighbour: ‘Imbrailo’s up with the best of French baritones.’
Imbrailo is in fact South African, a rising star, who enjoyed rave reviews in ROH’s Billy Budd in April this year. He is set for great things. (See my interview with Jacques Imbrailo here)
Werther is a compelling opera. It’s not one which is played very often, perhaps because it is both spare in story-line and also demanding of its voices.
Massenet based his work on Göethe’s novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers/The sorrows of young Werther. When it was published in 1774, it was a signal of the start of the Romantic movement and helped spawn a generation of young men determined to live according to their most deeply-held desires; for sensitivity equalled truth.
While the movement produced great poets, writers and new political thought, it encouraged egotistical behaviour, dangerous hedonism and premature suicide.
These are of course the paradoxes of romanticism that continue to resonate with us. And in this revival of Werther, we have both a story and performances well worth seeing. Visually arresting – especially in the final act – this is a production that should appeal most of all to a youthful audience. Including the young at heart.
Performances of Werther left : 24 and 27th September. 1 and 5 October 2019