‘Werther’ and ‘Wozzeck’ — The Poet and the Peasant: Two Big W’s at the Met

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Love and Marriage (Not Necessarily in That Order)

Jonas Kaufmann as Werther (Photo: Ken Howard)
Jonas Kaufmann as Werther (Photo: Ken Howard)

You could not have picked two more dissimilar subjects for operatic treatment than Jules Massenet’s Werther and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. A mere thirty-three years separate the premieres of both works, with Werther (based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther) being heard in Vienna, in a German translation of all things, on February 16, 1892, and Wozzeck (taken from Georg Büchner’s unfinished play, Woyzeck) seeing the light of day at the Berlin State Opera on December 14, 1925.

Stylistically, the two pieces are many worlds apart. Though composed by a Frenchman, Massenet’s opera adheres closely to the aesthetic of German High Romanticism in most respects, in particular its idealized portrayal of the suicidal poet Werther and his unrequited love for the respectable Charlotte. Goethe conceived the story as a series of letters (shades of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin) written at the start by Werther himself to a friend, and later by the author, who picks up the thread from the tormented protagonist until his tragic demise by his own hands.

Indeed, the parallels to Pushkin, and to Tchaikovsky’s opus (discussed in a previous post: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/), abound throughout and can be summed up in the dire circumstances that dog the dramatis personae.

In Eugene Onegin, the title character spurns the youthful Tatiana, who professes her love for him in a lengthy letter. Rejected, Tatiana elects to marry a much older man instead. Prior to that, Onegin shoots and kills his closest friend, the poet Lensky, in a quarrel of his own making. When Onegin at last acknowledges his love for Tatiana, she refuses to give in to his entreaties out of loyalty to her husband and to her own moral code.

In a bit of poetic license, one can surmise that, in the Massenet work, the poet Werther (substituting for the lovesick Lensky) has returned from an extended stay abroad, only to discover that he has fallen hopelessly in love with the now-married Charlotte (read: Tatiana). Suspecting that she may be having an affair with Werther, Charlotte’s husband Albert (the Prince Gremin character from Onegin), in response to a request from Werther, sends him a pair of dueling pistols, the upshot of which results in the poet’s protracted death throes that conclude the opera.

It’s all a bit confusing, I admit, but the premise makes perfect sense if one tracks Werther’s story line to its ultimate conclusion: that love will find a way, even if it ends in the loss of the one you most love.

The Bleakness of a Tortured Life

No such romantic inclinations inhabit the claustrophobic environment of Berg’s Wozzeck. On the contrary, this haunting ninety-minute work (in three acts, but most often performed without intermission, as presented at the Met) wallows pathetically in its very depravity and emotional want.

Composer Alban Berg
Composer Alban Berg

There is no love lost between any of the characters, including the titular “poor soldier” Wozzeck. He and his live-in girlfriend, Marie (a lustful, Bible-reading harlot), are subjected to all manner of cruelty by a variety of callous individuals: from the condescending Captain, the pedantic Doctor, and the brutish Drum Major in Wozzeck’s case; to the desperate and mentally challenged Wozzeck himself, who torments Marie with varying degrees of indifference and bewilderment, leading to his jealous rage and to her eventual murder by lakeside.

The music that Berg used to capture these appalling events is of the starkest means possible, with the jaggedness of the orchestration reflecting the broken shards of the characters’ lives. Hardly a hint of melody appears to be present, yet this masterful score essentially overflows with post-romantic elements, many of which came from the pen of Richard Strauss (his one-act opera Salome, for instance), as well as that of his contemporary Gustav Mahler (a Ländler waltz here, a Mahlerian D-Minor Sonata there).

Given the above assessment, how could Werther and Wozzeck hope to compare to one another, if at all? Remarkably, both operas end with the simplest of touches: in the Massenet work, children’s voices are heard in the distance, chanting a Christmas carol as Werther dies peacefully in the arms of his true love, Charlotte; in Berg’s more derisive interpretation, after Marie’s murder and Wozzeck’s self-inflicted death by drowning, their little son is seen riding a hobbyhorse, while the other children run off to where the body of his deceased mother lies. “Hop, hop,” the ignorant tot cries as he hobbles about. “Hop, hop” — stark, harrowing, and heartrendingly bleak.

The utter finality of death and the futility of a tortured life linger in the air of both works, but with the negative “edge” going to Alban Berg for his insightful reading of the times in which he lived. In reality, Berg started work on Wozzeck during and towards the end of World War I, one of the cruelest and most disgraceful chapters of European history up to that period. Fortunately for his part, Massenet did not live to see the horrors inflicted upon his fellow citizens. He passed away on August 13, 1912 at the age of 70. Two years later, on August 3, Germany declared war on France.

In the fall of 1915, upon completion of his training at an Austro-Hungarian boot camp Berg suffered a complete physical breakdown, which led to his imposed hospitalization. According to Alex Ross in his book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, the frail composer was “confined to a desk job” for the duration of the conflict. There, “a beastly superior made his life miserable.” Berg took his penance in stride, however, later making full use of this bitter episode as a model for his depiction of Wozzeck’s privations.

A New Production

The Metropolitan Opera presented both works in successive Saturday afternoon broadcasts. First up was Werther, heard on March 15 and transmitted as part of their Live in HD series. This was a new Richard Eyre production, whose previous work included an updating of Bizet’s Carmen to Franco-era Spain. His Werther replaced the previous version designed by Paul-Émile Deiber, which did double-duty for well on four decades.

Left to right: David Bizic, Lisette Oropesa & Jonas Kaufmann (Ken Howard)
Left to right: David Bizic, Lisette Oropesa & Jonas Kaufmann (Ken Howard)

The cast featured tenor of the hour Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and debuting French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch as Charlotte. Others in the lineup included bass-baritone David Bižić as Albert, soprano Lisette Oropesa as Sophie, baritone Jonathan Summers as the Bailiff, and bass Philip Cokorinos and tenor Tony Stevenson as Johann and Schmidt, respectively. The work was conducted by returning French-Armenian maestro Alain Altinoglu, who acquitted himself well, despite some slackness in the pit.

Not having seen Eyre’s production in the flesh, nor in its HD debut, I must rely on photographs and reviews of the abstract sets along with the mise-en-scène to provide relevant commentary. The biggest change from the Met’s earlier (and, scenically, quite splendid) incarnation of Werther was in its delineation of the title character’s suicide, complete with blood-splattered walls and copious amounts of stage gore. Not usually shown but merely hinted at, this kind of ultra-realistic, gutwrenching drama is what substitutes nowadays for character development. If, however, by its use a director of taste can add to our understanding of the opera’s plot, then by all means go for it.

Vocally, the opera profited from Kaufmann’s drop-dead good looks and handsomely svelte physique. That he can also sing and act up a storm is a tremendous advantage in this role. Indeed, his illustrious string of predecessors, among them such past exponents as Tito Schipa, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Georges Thill, Charles Richard, and Albert Lance, along with Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Gedda, José Carreras, Neil Shicoff, and especially Franco Corelli, whom Kaufmann clearly favors as a role model in the part, would pose a challenge to any newcomer.

However, Kaufmann is far from a newcomer. Heard last season in a glorious performance of Wagner’s Parsifal, I’ve been following this incredibly gifted artist for several seasons now. His Florestan in Fidelio and Cavaradossi in Tosca are marvels of high-voltage exuberance, replete with blazing high notes and luxurious legato phrasing throughout the top and bottom of his range. His fluency in languages other than his native German are plus factors in excelsis.

Sophie Koch & Jonas Kaufmann in Act III (Ken Howard)
Sophie Koch & Jonas Kaufmann in Act III (Ken Howard)

Artistically, Kaufmann’s Werther was beyond reproach. His third-act duet with his leading lady, and of course his well-received “Pourquoi me réveiller?” were thrilling in their full-voiced passion. Still, there was something about this dark-edged poet that missed that final spark of inspiration. Maybe it was my mood that day, or perhaps the coloration of his voice (his enunciation of the text was more than acceptable, so it couldn’t have been that). But my thought was that Kaufmann did not sound particularly French. Well, then, neither did Corelli, for that matter, but there was always a hint of animal magnetism in that great tenor’s assumption. If that was the only thing I could find fault with in Kaufmann’s performance, then we should be so lucky! This was golden-age singing to die for, so why quibble over non-essential details?

On the other hand, I found Sophie Koch’s Charlotte to be a placid bird. A model of French restraint, she was all-but a cipher as far as the character was concerned. Koch sounded, on the radio at least, slightly inhibited vocally, her great Letter Scene (so similar to Tatiana’s in Eugene Onegin, but with more melancholy aspects thrown in) going by the boards in a purely perfunctory manner. Whatever nuance or tone color she put into the role — one of Massenet’s finest depictions of feminine fragility and nobility — did not come through as one would have hoped. Being hampered by the lack of visuals, I made these judgments based solely on what I heard, and what I heard failed to move this listener.

No such problems afflicted the perky and luscious toned Sophie of New Orleans native Lisette Oropesa, who showed a sympathetic side to Charlotte’s younger sister that had eluded Koch. Bass-baritone Bižić was stuck in the mud, so to speak, in trying to portray a vivid character from Albert’s meager lines. Physically, I’m told he did a wonderful job. It’s not entirely his fault, though, that the fellow, as Massenet conceived him, has more to do offstage than on. The other singers came off well enough, although none of them even approached the bon vivant buoyancy offered by the late, great comic basso Fernando Corena as the Bailiff, Charlotte and Sophie’s widowed father.

Incidentally, this production interpolated a pre-curtain “dumb-show” into the opening prelude, representing the death and burial of the Bailiff’s wife. I am not one for such extravagances in the name of clarifying the plot for audience members too lazy to read up on the work at hand, but if that’s what the director chose to do, then so be it.

In my younger days as an active opera-goer, I made certain I knew ahead of time what it was I was going to be watching. I didn’t always have the time, nor did I have access to readily available material so plentiful in our digital age. With that said, I did the best I could to devour the program guide in order to keep abreast of what was transpiring on stage. Now, with super-titles and simultaneous translations being delivered in real-time, most of the work is done for you by automation: one small step for man, one giant leap for opera-kind.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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