Werther in Monte-Carlo

A superb cast, an inspired maestro, an intimate theater, an operatic masterpiece (the eighteenth of Massenet’s thirty-six operas), Werther in Monte-Carlo was a thrilling bombardment of emotional crises. 

From the downbeat Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási blasted a tragic lyricism into Massenet’s beautifully flowing lines, leading the poet Werther to magnificent intensities in the plentitude of his climactic high notes. Brass colors howled the rawness of Werther’s feelings, the bass viols sounding the depths. 

The maestro took Charlotte to utter despair in the third act, marking the plentitude of minor steps and intervals as the agonies of Charlotte, the ascending lines in the cellos insisting the severity. The full voice of the esteemed Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo was unleashed for the suffering of the final scene.

At the downbeat stage director Jean-Louis Grinda’s Werther faced a huge gilt frame. 3-D images of Charlotte appeared from time to time. It then became a huge mirror that shattered and disappeared. The fragments of mirror were explained a bit more in the third act as that of Charlotte’s dressing table, the exiled Werther seated at its smashed mirror as an inescapable presence (a harpsichord and a case of pistols completed the third act minimalist set).

At the intermezzo between Acts 3 and 4 [though no gunshot] the huge frame reappeared, its opaque surface becoming transparent for the final scene. But it was now an imaginary, impenetrable barrier, the frantic Charlotte behind.

All this smashed glass was a bit confusing though it did serve to underscore the fury of the exposed emotions.

Jean-François Borras as Werther

Fortunately at crucial moments a gray surround descended to hide the distracting scenic backgrounds of designer Rudy Sabounghi, and we were left with the words alone — a late nineteenth century take on Goethe’s pre-Romantic novella. They were sung by artists among the finest of France’s singing actors, notably tenor Jean-François Borras as Werther and mezzo soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Charlotte. Interestingly their famed arias were not delivered as show pieces, rather the arias were perceived as monologues that deepened character. There was no urge to applaud, thus there was no interruption of the maestro’s tragic flow.

Mr. Borras is no stranger to the role of Werther, having taken then place of Jonas Kaufman for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2014 Werther. A singer in his prime, he has a fine point and focus in his voice that lends itself beautifully to the French language. Though the tessitura of Werther is not high (a few A’s and one B-flat) he found profound excitement in attaining them, while prolonging the vocal intensities of Werther’s extended agonies.

Mme. d’Oustrac is an actress of extraordinary gifts who managed to convey through body language alone the confusion of her emotions in the first and second acts (there is little help from the libretto), letting Werther take all the vocal glory. The third act is hers however, and she cemented her fame as a singing actress, able to access the intimacies of the French language while grandly intoning the suffering of nineteenth century womanhood. Once a respected Baroque singer she still has a lighter vocal color though now she adds a fullness of tone and an abundance of power.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Charlotte

Charlotte’s sister Sophie was sung by soprano Jennifer Courcier who magically transformed herself into an adolescent child, a somewhat older sister to her five younger siblings (the core of the excellent, small children’s chorus), and convinced us of an innocent infatuation with Werther, leaving us focused on the trials of Charlotte. Charlotte’s fiancé then husband Albert was sung by baritone Jean-François Lapointe whose leading man looks and beautiful voiced Act I aria created a world of security and well being that went far beyond what any physical setting could demonstrate.

The bailiff (a magistrate, not a sheriff) was confidently enacted by baritone Marc Barrard, a veteran of many roles in Monaco. His drinking buddies Johann and Schmidt were played by Philippe Ermelier and Reinaldo Macias, Mr. Macias the only non-French cast member.

Michael Milenski

Production information

Mise en Scène: Jean-Louis Grinda; Décors et costumes: Rudy Sabounghi; Lumières: Laurent Castaingt; Décors vidéo: Julien Soulier; Films: Gabriel Grinda. Choeur d’Enfants de l’Académie de Musique Rainier III; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. All photos courtesy of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, copyright Alain Hanel. Opéra Garnier de Monte-Carlo, Monaco, February 20, 2020