Thursday 19 September 2019

A satisfying evening, certainly: whatever the caveats - Juan Diego Flórez & Isabel Leonard in Massenet's 'Werther' at Covent Garden

Massenet: Werther - Juan Diego Florez and Isabel Leonard - Royal Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore, (C) ROH 2019)
Massenet: Werther - Juan Diego Florez and Isabel Leonard - Royal Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore, (C) ROH 2019)
Massenet Werther; Juan Diego Flórez, Isabel Leonard, Alastair Miles Jacques Imbrailo, Heather Engebretson, Byeongmin Gil, Vincent Ordonneau, Michael Mofidian, Stephanie Wake-Edwards, Pearse Cole, Emily Barton, Laurence Taylor, Victoria Nekhaenk, Paul Warren, Toby Yates, dir: Benoît Jacquot, revival dir: Andrew Sinclair, set designer, lighting designer: Charles Edwards, costume designer: Christian Gasc, cond: Edward Gardner; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Reviewed by Colin Clarke on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Massenet's Goethe-inspired opera returns to Covent Garden with Juan Diego Flórez and Isabel Leonard.

Massenet: Werther - Isabel Leonard, Jacques Imbrailo - Royal Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore, (C) ROH 2019)
Massenet: Werther - Isabel Leonard, Jacques Imbrailo
Royal Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore, (C) ROH 2019)
This is the third outing at the Royal Opera House (seen 17 September 2019) of Benoît Jacquot’s superb production of Massenet’s Werther, first seen in 2004. Moody, brilliantly lit skyscapes for the ideal backdrop to this classic tale, derived from Goethe’s iconic Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). Simpler is better; this production is a far cry from the trickery of the Don Giovanni that opened the season just the night before.

The piece has attracted superstar tenors, with Rolando Villazón taking the lead in the last production I saw here at Covent Garden (2011: his Charlotte was Sophie Koch); the conductor on that occasion was Antonio Pappano. All change, and Juan Diego Flórez took up the mantle of the doomed, lovestruck young man while Edward Gardner headed the Royal Opera’s forces.

The power of a conductor was rarely obvious as here: just the previous night, under Hartmut Haenchen in Don Giovanni, the orchestra had seemed decidedly ill-at-ease (unsurprisingly given some of the dragging speeds). Now, just 24 hours later, the orchestra was transformed into a slick, passionate, powerful group, perfectly attuned to Massenet’s invitingly Romantic, heart-wrenching world, perhaps a measure of the respect they have for Gardner. There were some issues of dynamics, though, with Flórez’ voice completely drowned out in the earlier stages, his voice absolutely tested to its limit and beyond. Flórez is superb in Rossini and Donizetti (his performances in Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment here unforgettable evenings); he felt less at home here.

Massenet: Werther - Isabel Leonard - Royal Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore, (C) ROH 2019)
Massenet: Werther - Isabel Leonard - Royal Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore, (C) ROH 2019)
Flórez meanders on stage in shades towards the very opening of the evening; the problem is that, from that moment to the end, it is difficult to engage with him, his acting rather surface: we are always aware that his is Flórez as Werther, rather than believing we are hearing Werther himself. In the first act, his “O nature pleine de grâce” was symptomatic of this; his third act “Pourquoi me réveiller” was his finest solo moment.

To find that the actual star of the evening was not Flórez might have come as a surprise to some, but previous experiences with mezzo Isabel Leonard from Met simulcasts and as Cherubino in the Proms performance of the Glyndebourne Figaro in 2011 led to high expectations. She has in fact sang Charlotte for the Met; now she conquers London, every word audible, her voice the very definition of beauty. How Leonard rose to the challenge of the Letter Scene, transfixing in a perfect marriage of musical intelligence, soul and stage presence. The sooner she returns to Covent Garden, the better. A shame, then, that the spark that simply has to exist between Werther and Charlotte was hardly in evidence for the majority of the evening; only in the work’s final stretches, with Werther dying in his garrett, did we get a hint of what might have been, Flórez at last finding our hearts.

Heather Engebretson sang the role of Sophie in 2015; she is a superb, light soprano whose internal life energy illuminates up the stage and whose voice is as fresh as the role demands. She was the perfect female foil for Isabel Leonard; Engebretson’s vocal agility, too, was the cause of much delight. Another success was Jacques Imbrailo, who made the most of the role of Albert (a massive improvement on Audun Iversen in 2011). Imbrailo shone recently in the title role of Billy Budd at the Royal Opera; Albert is not necessarily the most rewarding evening for a baritone but Imbrailo managed to make every entry compelling.

The experienced Alastair Miles was a capable pair of hands plus some vocal cords for The Bailli (the Mayer of the town); and at the opposite end of the experience spectrum, there are three Jette Parker Young Artists in the cast list: Scottish-Iranian bass-baritone Michael Mofidian, a creditable Johann (the Schmidt, though, Vincent Ordonneau, was in a class just a touch higher), the excellent South Korean bass-baritone Byeongmin Gil ,superb as Brühlmann and mezzo Stephanie Wake-Edwards in fine form as Käthchen. Credit, too, to the six confident young children in the first half.

Massenet: Werther - Juan Diego Flórez, Isabel Leonard - Royal Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore, (C) ROH 2019)
Massenet: Werther - Juan Diego Flórez, Isabel Leonard - Royal Opera (Photo: Catherine Ashmore, (C) ROH 2019)
Gardner kept the dramatic pace well but left plenty of space for his singers. A satisfying evening, certainly: whatever the caveats, Massenet’s shining genius emerged intact. 
Reviewed by Colin Clarke

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