La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Letter from Munich: Massenet´s Werther (July 4)

Gruss Gott aus Muenchen! I arrived in this lovely city yesterday and already had a delectable beginning to my eight-day opera extravaganza. Last evening’s Werther at the National Theater was to star Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon in the title role, but he was forced to withdraw because of vocal cord surgery in late April. In his place was Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who incidentally sang this role last summer in the same production here in Munich. I felt he was good last year, but this time around, he was magnificent (but more about that later). The Charlotte last evening was once again Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova. Albert was baritone Natale di Carolis. Bertrand de Billy conducted.

The production is quirky but interesting. A scrim and three walls full of Werther’s scribblings make the point that the story is told through the lens of the protagonist. Right in the middle of the stage is a rock with a writing desk. When Werther is there, the story is told from his perspective. This differentiation is helped by changes in lighting – an interesting concept that works reasonably well. The projections on the scrim and the walls seem to change, indicating the gradual deterioration of Werther’s mind. I have always find the opera itself unfolds too slowly. Acts one and two aren’t so interesting. The best music is reserved for acts three and four. This production has only one intermission, with fairly long pauses between the other acts. The audience, typical of the Munich Opera Festival, is knowledgeable and extremely well behaved. There were no breaks for applause, even after set pieces like Charlotte’s letter scene. But after ‘Pourquoi me reveiller’, there was a huge eruption of well-deserved bravos that lasted many minutes. From act three on, Beczala was fantastic vocally and very fine dramatically. He did omit a high C later but it was optional to begin with. His performance seemed to lift everybody else onstage and the performance caught fire. Kasarova began with a very dark tone, and her customary glottal attacks might not be to everyone’s taste. Her acting became increasingly dramatic as the story unfolded. I think the incredible performance of Beczala might have urged her on to give her all. Her singing was characterized by searing high notes coupled with some unusual, contralto like lows - at moments she sounded like a man. Overall hers was a satisfying Charlotte. De Billy conducted this piece as if it is verismo – perhaps a little bit heavy handed. I was dead centre in the 18th row – the sound coming from the pit was very loud. With these two excellent leads and their all-out, ‘take no prisoners’ style, this veristic approach made for an exciting evening at the theatre. If the audience appeared reserved during the performance, they sure did not hold back at the end – huge, huge ovations that lasted something like 10 minutes, with the cast called back again and again. Perhaps more than 20 curtain calls altogether. This was a most auspicious start to my Munich sojourn. Tonight is the Diana Damrau Liederabend – I can’t wait!

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