BWW Review: A Passionate Vittorio Grigolo in the Off-Kilter World of Massenet's WERTHER at the Met
Tenor Vittorio Grigolo always seems most at home on stage when he's living close to the edge--portraying a character who's losing control (or about to) of his emotions. It was true earlier this season as Romeo, in Gounod's ROMEO ET JULIETTE at the Met opposite Diana Damrau and, in 2015, as Chevalier Des Grieux in Massenet's MANON, also with Damrau. (Might as well add Offenbach's Hoffmann to the mix.) Well, Massenet's back at the Met with WERTHER, also starring the gorgeous, sultry-voiced mezzo Isabel Leonard and all should be well with the world, with Grigolo as the poet who's losing his head (and mind) over a woman who can't (or won't) reciprocate.
The affair seems so one-sided for the first half of the opera that we're not quite convinced if this is only going on in Werther's head. It seems to be: The passion in his relationship with Charlotte doesn't seem to add up to a whole until after the intermission (the Met performs WERTHER with only one break, between Acts II and III). Then they finally get their clinch--only for her to go back to her husband, the dull Albert (nicely played by baritone David Bizic), and for Werther to ask to borrow a gun.
With a stellar performance from the Met orchestra under Edward Gardner, this was the first outing for the production--from Sir Richard Eyre with sets and costumes by Rob Howell, video design by Wendall K. Harrington and lighting by Peter Mumford--since its premiere in 2014. It's a pretty good one, with a beautiful set that's as off-kilter as the hero, except for the upright, uptight world that Charlotte lives in.
Jonas Kaufmann took the title role in the premiere, more poetic than passionate as Werther--and that's one way to go in the role. (The famed tenor Alfredo Kraus took that route and made the poet one of the most elegant tragic figures in opera.) Grigolo goes in the opposite direction and adds a good helping of schmaltz that works well here, throwing passion to the wind. Leonard's Charlotte is the opposite: beautifully sung--Leonard has a gorgeous voice--but cold as ice, until she is awakened in Act III.
The opera's libretto is based on a book, The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. It's written as a series of letters, not really fleshing out the rest of the characters, thus leaving the performers much to fill in. Bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro came off best as Charlotte's father, though I missed the relish he brought earlier in the season to Bartolo in IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA. The last major role is Charlotte's younger sister, Sophie; soprano Anna Christy came off too matronly, both physically and vocally, as the 15-year-old who has a crush on Werther.
Act IV is a long death scene, following a dumbshow suicide that's not in the original libretto. It has been inserted by director Eyre for those who need their endings more literal than literary and with enough blood-splatter to satisfy fans of NBC's Law and Order franchise. (Eyre inserted pantomimes several times in the production, to fill in, I guess, what he considered some other holes in the libretto.) Grigolo and Leonard play it for all it's worth and it's pretty satisfying in all.
The opera has had a somewhat checkered performance history and it's easy to see why, even with a performance as compelling as Grigolo's. There's some beautiful music here--Massenet has provided several tasty arias, mostly for Werther, in the first two acts--but the big aria in the piece is Werther's poignant "Pourquoi me reveille o souffle de printemps?..." ("Why awaken me, oh breath of spring?..."), a standby of the tenor repertoire. When it's done right--as Grigolo proved--it's devastatingly beautiful. But it's in Act III: Yes, the last half of the show is definitely worth waiting for, but only if you can get through the first two acts on faith and some impassioned singing--which, admittedly, seemed to be enough for most of the audience.
Additional performances of WERTHER are: February 23, 27, March 4 mat, 9. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here. Running time: 2 hours and 54 minutes, with one intermission.
Tickets begin at $25; for prices, more information, or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.