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Koch, Nakamura; Villazón, Iversen, Vernhes; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Pappano. Text, translation and notes. Deutsche Grammophon 477 9340 (2)
Antonio Pappano leads a high-adrenaline Werther from Covent Garden, with Rolando Villazón and Sophie Koch as its intense, vibrant principals.
Devotees of Massenet's Werther were well served by an Opéra Bastille DVD last year (OPERA NEWS, Feb. 2011) that, while sober in visual terms, boasted resplendent voices (Kaufmann, Koch) and expansive, atmospheric conducting by Michel Plasson. What were the odds that another convincing performance would become available on CD just a year later?
Yet here it is, recorded live from Covent Garden in 2011, a gripping Werther in which Antonio Pappano subjects the ill-fated characters to closer scrutiny and a hard-driving pace. This high-adrenaline approach forms a true complement to Plasson's more ruminative, arm's-length style. There's a similar sense of yin and yang between the mercurial, finely shaded Werther of Rolando Villazón in this London performance and Jonas Kaufmann's dashing, grandly Romantic vocal characterization. Nor is there any redundancy in the fact that both versions cast the same singer, mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, as Charlotte . With Pappano she evokes a more intense character, active and high-strung — almost more complicit in the tragedy, as if recalling Rodney Milnes's somewhat harsh judgment that the opera's two protagonists "are determined to make each other as miserable as they possibly can."
Pappano's tempos seem faster than they are; comparisons by the clock find him consistently outpacing Plasson but actually slightly slower than Colin Davis (on the classic 1981 Carreras–von Stade version) or such early, TGVFrench masters as Elie Cohen and Georges Sébastien. The real difference is the flexibility of Pappano's rhythms, the frequent accelerandos, the variety and dynamism that can make even the eloquent Davis, in segments such as the great Act IV prelude, sound too steady by comparison. A simple little musical cell such as the seven-note figure accompanying Charlotte's brief final scene with Albert is repeated with a daunting range of expression and color. And at times, as in the whirlwind close to Act II , this new version reinvigorates Massenet's overused contrast between tragic and comic (Werther's despair; the children's happy excitement).
Apparently well recovered from the vocal problems and throat surgery of recent years, Villazón is firm and vibrant in this spinto workout, though without much of a safety margin. Kaufmann is better cast in this respect, with his more forceful and glamorous timbre, while lacking the lighter tenor's expertise in mezza voce and diminuendo or his hair-trigger shifts in tempo and volume. (Each ascent to the high A-sharp in "Pourquoi me réveiller" finds Kaufmann slowing down cautiously in preparation, distorting the rhythm of six short and one long note and losing the intended excitement of attack.) While Villazón overuses portamento, sometimes adding a quavery effect, for the most part he is a paragon of artistic, flexible singing , tightly in sync with the conductor. The tenor achieves a convincing portrait of a Werther riddled with fatal sensitivity and then finally at peace.
The supporting cast provides good contrast to the dark theatrics of the two protagonists. Audun Iversen as Albert and Alain Vernhes as Le Bailli typify bourgeois solidity, while Eri Nakamura is assertively bright-toned in Sophie's manic music. The bibulous neighbors and high-strung children might be a notch too prominent for some ears, but it's all part of the conductor's tendency to keep the pressure on. He is abetted throughout by the alert, richly colored playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra .
DAVID J. BAKER