In a dream pairing, Piotr Beczala and Elīna Garanča deliver magnificent performances in this meticulously directed revival of Werther at Paris Opera.
A simple but effective production, first presented at Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London in 2004, the realistic but pared back staging allows full focus on the protagonists. This is only fitting given that the opera is basically an intense character study on two young people at a tumultuous point in their lives.
Before the sweeping panorama of a steely grey sky, the perilously raked stage is first the slate tiled courtyard of the Bailiff’s home then a road to the church. For act three, Charlotte’s home is bare and stark, making it clear she is not enjoying a warm marriage with Albert. In an intriguing combination of lighting and scenic design, the final set moves forward slowly as the lights slowly rise, allowing our eyes to gradually absorb the horror that has transpired within Werther’s room.
While the colours of the costumes have been carefully selected, Christian Gasc’s decision to keep the characters in the same outfits despite the passing of three seasons remains an odd choice. Werther stands out in a gorgeous blue suit while the others wear muted earth tones. One moment where the use of single costumes aids understanding is the brief snatch of subplot concerning Brühlmann. First seen boring his fiancée in act one, his moss green top hat and suit make him instantly recognisable in act two when he is seen bemoaning the fact that she has left him, despite the seven year engagement they had shared.
Maestro Giacomo Sagripanti leads the Orchestra of the Paris Opera in a sumptuous performance of Massenet’s richly coloured, highly expressive score. The wide, open orchestra pit of Opera Bastille allows the varying dynamics to be enjoyed with crisp clarity. Massenet’s gift to the orchestra is the inclusion of potent interludes, which are each played exquisitely.
Growing more handsome with each passing year, Beczala is nothing short of sensational as tortured soul Werther. First seen in round rock star sunglasses and knee high black boots, Beczala avoids the swagger that such a look could provide, imbuing Werther with tenderness as well as anxious self-doubt. In a thrilling act two, Beczala conveys Werther’s rising mania in his face and body. As much as Werther wants to see Charlotte, when he does see her, the pain only becomes worse. She delays their next contact to Christmas, which may only be three months away but to Werther it may as well be three years. All will and hope knocked out of his body, he slumps to the ground with a pain so great the only relief he can imagine is death.
Beczala’s magnificent singing of the role is enhanced by a superb legato quality, which is evident not only in his phrasing but also in the fact he seamlessly produces the same rich tone in his mid range as in his high notes. When singing, Beczala uses minimal movement or affectation, projecting a full range of emotions, all compelling, through his vocal expression. Popular arias can occasionally sound safely familiar, but Beczala delivers a blistering rendition of “Pourquoi me réveiller?“ that earns a roaring ovation.
Dressed in virginal white, Garanča attains the look of a blossoming young woman coming into her prime. A serene beauty, Garanča can project the profound sadness and confusion of Charlotte despite her sunny blonde looks.
Massenet’s writing of the lead female role for a mezzo-soprano is a masterstroke, allowing a lush, full-bodied sound where ornamental beauty would be extraneous. Garanča’s deliciously rich sound is as fresh and pure as ever, with the added benefit of a more mature edge. Garanča’s delivery of the act three letter scene is a tour de force that runs the gamut of emotions with startling power.
Based not only on the finely nuanced performances of Beczala and Garanča but also on the whole cast, it is evident that the production has been carefully directed for this revival presentation. The cast uniformly shares a grounded, focused approach, presenting their characters in a sincere, naturalistic manner.
Charlotte’s dear younger sister Sophie, as portrayed by Elena Tsallagova, provides a burst of sunny optimism with each appearance, singing in an entrancingly crystal clear soprano.
Stephane Dégout succeeds in making Albert a less attractive proposition for poor Charlotte, who promised her mother on her deathbed that she would marry the man. Dégout conveys a dry, serious manner as he sings the role with clean efficiency.
As the Bailiff, Paul Gay is a fit, vital figure, and sings the bass role with a pure, unwavering quality.
Rodolphe Briand and Lionel Lhote play comic roles Schmidt and Johann without a trace of “drunk acting,” relying solely on the heart and good will of these jovial men.
Seasoned operagoers may have already seen this production, but the stunning quality of performances is a strong reason to enjoy Werther all over again.
Werther plays selected dates at Opéra Bastille until 4 February 2016.
Werther was reviewed 7.30pm Wednesday 20 January 2016, its premiere performance for the season.
Photos: Simon Parris