Jonas Kaufmann is the Ultimate Romantic Hero as Werther at the Met

February 24, 2014 Updated: February 25, 2014

Jules Massenet’s “Werther” has returned to the Metropolitan Opera in a new production directed by Richard Eyre. The opera is based Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and while the lead character may suffer, the audience is fascinated by the tenor playing the title role: Jonas Kaufmann.

Eyre makes some changes to the opera that do not detract from the impact of the work. First, he changes the time period from the late 18thto the late 19th century, basically moving it into the period when Massenet wrote the opera. Second, the director adds action during the playing of the overture: a mother dies and her family mourns her, after which winter turns into spring. The latter effect is achieved through Wendall K. Harrington’s imaginative video projections, which are especially effective in the first act. The sets and costumes are by Rob Howell.

In Act I, it is revealed that the woman who died was the Bailiff’s wife and his eldest daughter, Charlotte, is taking care of the other children. Although it is early July, the family is rehearsing a Christmas carol. A couple of the Bailiff’s friends arrive and they discuss Werther, a young poet who is going to accompany Charlotte to a ball later that day. The title character arrives and extolls the beauty of nature. He then meets his date and she leaves the children in the care of her 15 year old sister Sophie. After Charlotte and Werther depart for the ball, Charlotte’s fiancé Albert arrives.

By the time the ball is over, the impressionable poet is smitten and Charlotte seems to feel the same way. However, when they are about to kiss, the Bailiff yells out that Albert is there. The young woman admits that she had promised her dying mother that she would marry Albert.

When the second act begins, Charlotte and Albert have been married for three months. Werther and Albert maintain a cordial relationship. Nevertheless, the poet keeps pursuing Charlotte and brushes off Sophie when she asks him to dance with her.  When he confronts Charlotte, she urges him to leave town until Christmas.  He does so but meets Sophie on the way out and reveals that he is leaving permanently. When Sophie repeats this and Charlotte gasps “forever,” Albert comprehends that Werther is still in love with his wife.

The third act takes place on Christmas eve. Charlotte is re-reading Werther’s letters to her and realizes that she reciprocates his feelings. He appears and they have a turbulent scene together, at the culmination of which he kisses her. She pulls away and again orders him to leave. Albert shows up and figures out what has been going on. A servant brings a note from Werther asking to borrow Albert’s pistols to take with him on a journey. Albert orders his wife to comply with the poet’s request, a sign that the husband is not as sympathetic as he seemed earlier.

Werther, distraught in his room, shoots himself in the chest (done realistically with blood bursting from his body onto the wall behind him).

In the last act, Charlotte arrives to discover the poet is dying. She admits her love for him and he dies in her arms as children are eerily singing Christmas carols outside.

Key to any production of the opera is the casting of the manic-depressive title character. The Met has Kaufmann, who is a contender as the leading tenor of our time. He looks the part of a young romantic poet and sings in exquisite taste, with a variety of vocal effects that are not aimed at showboating but on conveying the character’s emotions. His voice may be darker than those who usually sing the part (such as Alfredo Kraus, the last Werther I saw at the Met) but he is extraordinarily effective. The highlight of the evening was his rendition of the famous aria, “Pourquoi me reveiller.”

Originally, Elīna Garanča was scheduled to appear as Charlotte but she had to bow out because of her pregnancy. The Met was lucky to replace her with French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, who had performed the role to acclaim with Kaufmann at the Paris Opera in 2010. This is her impressive house debut. Koch is affecting in the part and gives a tour de force performance of the Letter Scene (like Tatiana’s similar one in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” except that Sophie is reading passionate letters to her rather than writing one to the man she loves).

Soprano Lisette Oropesa is so charming as Charlotte’s sister Sophie that one wonders why the poet fails to respond to her apparent interest. Bass David Bizic is a convincing, vocally suave Albert. The excellent Met orchestra is led by Alain Altinoglu.

“Werther” is running at the Metropolitan Opera intermittently through March 15th (212-362-6000, The Met: Live in HD presentation will be shown in theaters worldwide on Saturday, March 15 at 12:55 PM ET. This is one production that may be even more compelling on the screen because of the fact that the cast visually fits the parts and the subtle acting should benefit from close-ups.