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Teatro Comunale

In Review Werther Bologna hdl 317
Leonard and Flórez as Charlotte and Werther in Bologna
© Rocco Casaluci

MASSENET'S WERTHER is a rather personal work—written not on commission but to satisfy the composer’s own inner need. The opera requires a protagonist capable of laying bare his soul by inflecting every nuance in his solos, which often serve to release pent-up feeling rather than to communicate those feelings to others. French tenors have a natural advantage in conveying the psychological resonance of every syllable of Werther; singers of other nationalities have often compensated for less specific verbal eloquence with the dynamic subtlety of their phrasing.

After trying out the role in concert in Paris, Juan Diego Flórez made his stage debut in the role of Werther in December at the Teatro Comunale. The Peruvian tenor convinced his audience of the uncommon sensitivity of Goethe’s suicidal hero. His long-breathed phrasing was exquisitely musical in conception and generated a continuity of tension in the melodic line that compelled the audience to share the dreamlike absoluteness of the character’s existence; the generous encore of “Pourquoi me réveiller” was almost a physical necessity for all who were present at the performance on December 18. Werther’s typically youthful emotional extremism was made more credible by the forty-three-year-old Flórez’s ability to look and sound onstage like a very young man. The almost adolescent candor of the tenor’s personality, which has sometimes seemed a handicap in heavier roles, here supported the physiognomy of the character portrayed. And the willingness of conductor (and music director) Michele Mariotti to breathe and suffer together with the tenor was clearly audible in the sonorities of the Teatro Comunale Orchestra. 

In Rosetta Cucchi’s new production, Werther’s sense of isolation was highlighted by having the character occupy the front of the stage whenever he was in an introspective mood. Even during the prelude, we saw Werther seated despondently, with a box of pistols on his lap, in an armchair—the same armchair in which he slowly expired in Act IV, after shooting himself. During the course of the opera, Werther’s frequent swigs from a bottle of absinthe reminded us—not inappropriately—of the self-destructive streak in French poets living during the fin de siècle era, in which Massenet composed the opera. The sets by Tiziano Santi and costumes by Claudia Pernigotti established a more recent, post-World War II environment of carefree middle-class prosperity. The choice of milieu made the domestic scenes in Act I seem less stilted than they can sometimes seem in period costume, but it also made Charlotte’s decision to marry Albert much less plausibly conditioned by her social context. 

Isabel Leonard struggled in the first two acts to convey the character’s repression of her real feelings. There was no doubting the sensitivity of her Charlotte, however, or her ability to match Flórez in his refined music-making. As Charlotte’s husband, Albert, Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapointe displayed an oaken solidity of tone and physique that contrasted ideally with Flórez’s vulnerability. Lapointe brought out the complexity of a character whose mood gradually darkens. No less praiseworthy was Ruth Iniesta’s Sophie, whose perennial pertness was made more intriguing than usual by a voice of real character used with admirable skill. In the supporting parts of the Bailiff, Schmidt and Johann, Luca Gallo, Alessandro Luciano and Lorenzo Malagola Barbieri, respectively, proved theatrically convincing if not entirely idiomatic in accent. —Stephen Hastings

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