Juan Diego Flórez made his staged debut in Bologna as Werther, after the concert performance last April in Paris. A host of Kraus’ widows was in the hall: I heard wailing and gnashing of teeth at the memory of the great Alfredo K., many comments on how Flórez just “doesn’t have the right voice”, and even one guy saying “I prefer Alagna”. The horror!!
The honest truth is that Flórez gave a fantastic interpretation of the role of Werther. He clearly loves the character and the opera itself, and he was completely embedded in the fabric of the music throughout the whole performance. Yes, it’s true, the role of Werther could also benefit from a more powerful voice, and/or one that is centered more in the middle, as Kaufmann and Domingo’s performances can testify. But it’s also true that a more lyrical interpretation is not at all outrageous or out of style. Flórez is extremely believable as a young lover, always, in any opera. His voice is particularly suited to a melancholy, suicidal kind of lover (more than, say, to a heroic one), even if, as I noticed in Paris, he does not have the ambiguous, devious streak that Werther needs. The character of Werther is completely unsympathetic: he has no courage, no trust in his own feelings (or Charlotte’s, for that matter), he gives up without even trying, and then spends months writing letters to her, and ruining her life (and his own) for no reason. Basically Werther is state-of-the-art fuckboy, but Flórez, with his natural sense of style and elegance, manages to make the audience sympathize, and turns him into a romantic and tragic figure (which was, in fact, Goethe’s idea all along).
I liked the production!! Hear, hear, mark this day on your calendars, I actually liked an opera production! the action was set at some point in the XX century (as always, for no reason, but let’s not be too picky): some costumes were reminiscent of the roaring Twenties, but then Charlotte in the last act is definitely dressed in more modern clothes, it can’t be earlier than the Sixties. There was an idea, and it was a good idea. Werther is shown from the beginning sitting on the armchair where he is about to commit suicide, with a gun in his hands, drinking himself into a stupor, and, when the action begins, he sees it from outside, clearly remembering it. In the first act, Charlotte’s family home is shown as a doll’s house, where her siblings and her father live and talk and look like characters of a play he watches. When he himself participates in the action, he interacts with this “play”, but he’s always “off”, he’s dressed in black when everybody else is dressed in white, for example. When he sings his arias, he gets out of the “play”, towards the front of the stage, and a semi-transparent screen comes down to obscure the doll’s house, while everybody in it stops acting, or starts moving in slow motion.
In the second act, the scene in front of the church is a large picnic, with many people drinking and making merry, and during his big aria C’est moi! qu’elle pouvait aimer!, they all freeze like in a mannequin challenge (with great skill, I have to say) while he walks around them, singing. All this creates a big distance between him and everybody around him, and it manages to convey his sense of estrangement, of “otherness”, which will eventually bring him to suicide.
The only thing that I have to say about the production is that, unfortunately, it did interfere with the musical experience. The doll’s house was way back at the bottom of the stage, at least 5 meters in. This made it much harder for the singers to get heard, in the first act. The volume of sound they managed to project towards the audience was much smaller than it could have been, with a staging more respectful of the musical performance. I really cannot comprehend why it is so hard for stage directors (even good ones) to understand stuff like this.
Michele Mariotti, in the pit, was magnificent. He managed to bring together the performance with an extremely accurate and careful reading of the score. His support for the singers was constant, and not limited to make sure that the orchestra did not cover the poor performers trying to be heard from the doll’s house in the back of the stage. His dialogue with them was palpable, and, especially with Flórez, you could see them looking at each other, and you could almost feel the current of musical understanding between them. The orchestra played amazingly well, all the Romantic sweeps of the strings were breath-taking, and the brass sustained the tragic moments with dignity and strength. I adore Mariotti, it seems that whatever he touches, it turns to gold.
Charlotte was Isabel Leonard, a mezzo-soprano with a dark and round voice, sustained by a wonderful technique, which allows her to resolve her passaggio almost inaudibly. Her high notes are strong and beautiful; overall she was a wonderful discovery, for me. She is also a good actress: she and Flórez gave life to a wonderful, charming couple of youngsters in love. In the scene of the letters, she brought out all her burnished timbre to convey the turmoil of her heart. And in the death scene, she was moving and desperate. The last scene was probably the best bit of the whole performance: Flórez managed to produce a mezza voce which was delicate, emotional, and with wonderful color. His phrasing never failed him, and Leonard’s dark color was perfect for the occasion.
Ruth Iniesta gave her voice to Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister. I had already heard her in the minor role of Albina in La donna del lago, in Pesaro. She gave me a very good impression, her voice is very big and powerful, and, at the same time, agile and ringing like a little bell. Her vibrato is extremely pleasant, and she nailed the character of Sophie: a somewhat silly young girl, but good-hearted and sincere. Probably with a little crush on Werther herself.
Albert, Charlottes’ husband, was Jean-François Lapointe, who managed, with his smooth baritone, to bring home a difficult character. Albert is a good man, he’s madly in love with Charlotte, he knows she doesn’t love him, but manages to be happy anyway. He knows Werther is in love with her, but doesn’t really know what to do.
Alessandro Luciano and Lorenzo Malagola Barbieri, in the minor roles of Schmidt and Johann, were enjoyable and tried to provide the supposed comic relief that Massenet wanted to include in the opera. I have to say that the ensemble moments are the worst, musically, in this opera (as my friend Gianluca Florezido says). The music is a bit awkward and it feels that there is no direction. Special mention for the children’s chorus, which was extremely good!
Ah, I almost forgot, Flórez encored Pourquoi me reveiller! We raised such a ruckus that they simply had to encore the piece. I was very happy, but, to be honest, the first rendition was better (video courtesy of Olesya Florezida):
Overall, I must say that Flórez’ singing was better than in the concert performance in Paris last spring. First of all, this opera really improves with a good staging (yes, ok, every opera does, but this one more than others, I think). Second, Flórez really embedded himself into the part and managed to bring out the character in a much more convincing way. And then, we had Mariotti! I really think Mariotti and Flórez work amazingly well as a team, and I hope to see them together again soon.