Jules Massenet: Werther
Jules Massenet: Werther (in English)
Here are two recordings, taped in performance, of Jules Massenet's Goethe-inspired French Romantic opera. Both, for various reasons, command attention, although neither rises to the level of a truly outstanding representation of this lovely work.
Werther was one of the great roles of Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus, one of the truly patrician artists of his generation. Kraus's impeccable technique and judicious selection of repertoire allowed him to sing effectively almost until the time of his death last September, just two weeks shy of his 72nd birthday.
Kraus could be somewhat calculating and aloof in certain roles, but definitely not as Werther. In fact, I would count his interpretation of Goethe's lovesick poet as the crowning achievement of a great career.This Gala issue of a February 3, 1979 Metropolitan Opera performance features Kraus in excellent form. He is in superb voice, a very brief moment of roughness in the Act I "Clair de Lune" notwithstanding. The top notes are absolutely spine-tingling. Kraus frequently noted that he felt his in-performance recordings were far more compelling representations of his artistry than his studio efforts. And indeed, this Met performance of Werther offers greater intensity than Kraus's very fine EMI recording. If you are an admirer of Alfredo Kraus, you will definitely want this souvenir of a wonderful artist.
The other outstanding performance is the Sophie of Kathleen Battle. Ms.Battle sings the role of Charlotte's younger sister with great charm and without the kind of cloying sweetness that can make Sophie overstay her welcome. And Kathleen Battle's lyric soprano is in its loveliest, most secure estate.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of RÈgine Crespin's Charlotte.The wonderful French mezzo-soprano is in tremulous voice and often precarious in matters of pitch. Of course Crespin's diction is exemplary, and her involvement in the role is never in doubt. On another day, she could have provided the ideal partner to Kraus's inspired poet. Unfortunately, we are left pining for what might have been. Baritone Lenus Carlson is fine in the rather thankless role of Albert. Conductor Richard Bonynge's accompaniment allows the singers to make their points, but offers little in the way of passion. The sound is quite acceptable stereo, with good balance between the singers and orchestra.
I'm surprised to see this recording available in the United States. The Met is usually not too fond of third parties disseminating its performances. You may want to consider purchasing this set as quickly as possible, before any legal action strips it from the shelves. At budget price, the Gala set is definitely worth the investment.
The Chandos issue will be, in all likelihood, of more specialized interest. Taped in performance at the London Coliseum December 13, 1977, this Werther features an English-language translation by Norman Tucker. The art of operatic translation is always a matter of compromise.To a greater or lesser degree, the attempt to transfer the composer's original music to a new language will be a case of the square peg in the round hole.Massenet was a composer who took great care in fashioning music that matched the colors and rhythms of the text. Tucker's translation of Werther is best in the more rhapsodic moments, less effective in the frequent conversational passages. I should also add that not all of the singers enunciate the text with the utmost clarity.
The two principals fare best in delivering Tucker's adaptation in convincing fashion. John Brecknock's lyric tenor may lack the warmth and variety of colors of Alfredo Kraus, but he is nevertheless a secure and passionate Werther. The major artist among the vocalists, Dame Janet Baker, fully justifies her reputation with an interpretation of Charlotte that is superb from a vocal and dramatic standpoint. In fact, this is one of the finest assumptions of the role I have ever heard, a performance filled with all kinds of individual touches that bring this character to life.
Patrick Wheatley and Joy Roberts, the Albert and Sophie, are perfectly acceptable, though not outstanding, either in terms of vocal quality or clarity of diction. Sir Charles Mackerras, a superb musician and one of the finest opera conductors of our time, offers one of the most passionate readings on disc of Massenet's orchestral score. From the very opening measures to the final chord, Mackerras provides a rendition of extraordinary momentum and drama.
The recorded sound is quite good, with minimal audience interference. If you are in the market for an English-language Werther, I doubt that there will be another version coming along in the near future. And, with a superb Charlotte, a fine Werther, and a compelling Maestro, this performance has much to recommend it.
Now, if we could combine Kraus's Werther and Kathleen Battle's Sophie with Janet Baker's Charlotte, all conducted by Mackerras, we would have one of the great recordings of this opera.
K.M. (May 2000)