Review: WERTHER, Royal Opera House

Jonas Kaufmann returns to London for the title role in Massenet's opera

By: Jun. 21, 2023
Review: WERTHER, Royal Opera House
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Review: WERTHER, Royal Opera House

After last year’s Covid-cancelled role in Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci, international opera superstar Jonas Kaufmann returns to the Royal Opera House as the eponymous sadboy in Massenet’s opera based on Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. There are a lot of frustrated fist clenches. Except it’s for the wrong reasons.

Nobody doubts Kaufmann’s prowess. He is probably the world’s highest paid living opera singer. But tonight was not his night. His voice had a savoury kick, like a salty mature cheddar that while delicious, crumbles fast into crumbs. He forced himself to go too introspective as a result. Some of the best arias, particularly “Pourquoi Me Reveiller" underdelivered against the dreamlike swell of the Pappano led orchestra. It happens.

Come for Kaufmann but stay for Aigul Akhmetshina. The former Jette Parker Young Artists Programme participant stepped up to the plate and shines as Charlotte, the object of Werther’s doomed love. Her performance is hauntingly rendered, a marble statue, elegant but rock solid.  

The focus shifts. With Akhmetshina effortlessly drawing the production into her orbit, this revival feels less about the mopey Werther chasing after her, and more about the terrain of her emotional topography, her unease at deflecting Werther’s love, subsequent guilt, and deadly sorrow. Could it almost become her tragedy and not his?

It’s an interesting dynamic to watch unfold given how conceptually austere Benoît Jacquot strait-laced production is. It premiered in 2004, a simpler time, and you can tell. No big radical or sexy reinventions here. Just period garb and unpretentious sets.

The first act looks like an advert for Provence with its rustic wall with invasive shrubbery dangling from it. The second act, an almost barren liminal space reticent of Waiting for Godot, probably was not what was intended. It really needs the two principals to anchor it. We had at least one.

The production is showing its age. The cloudy grey backdrop is the same background you have in school portrait photographs. The final act in Werther’s shabby grey forced-perspective room, surrounded by snow falling in the background, wants to be more visually arresting than it is.

Despite all this the Massenet’s music works its magic and sinks its teeth into your heart. Tragedy and romance dance a fatal waltz; despite their doomed love, one still wishes that Werther will somehow survive, that he and Charlotte will kiss and make up, and skip off into the sunset. Instead, as with most operas, where there is unrequited passion there is jealousy and there is blood. It’s a testament to the brilliance of the music more than it is to this production.

Werther runs at the Royal Opera House until 4 July

Photo Credit: Bill Cooper


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