Monday, May 9, 2011

The Sorrows of Young Werther

In 1774 Goethe, the great German writer, dashed off a quick novella. It was in the style of the English gloomy novels of the time – things English were enjoying a bit of a fad on the continent at the time – and was entitled ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’. Goethe’s novella was also cathartic – he had found himself in a bit of a three-some, doting on a young lady who was engaged to be married to someone else. He used that situation in his story, and ended it dramatically with his hero, Werther, committing suicide for the sake of love. Unexpectedly, the thing became an overnight sensation, becoming one of the best-selling novels of all time. All over Europe, men were dressing like Werther in the ‘English style’ (blue jackets, buff waistcoats, riding boots); and it was reported (though it’s possibly apocryphal) that young men across the country were emulating Werther and killing themselves, artfully of course, if they were unhappy in love. It is said that Napoleon read the book seven times.

Werther and Lotte
 Personally, once will be enough for me. But it is worth reading this short little story if only because it was so damn famous in its day. ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ is about bourgeoisie people, and it is about psychology, and on both counts it was unusual and way ahead of its time. Being written by Goethe, it also contains some well expressed insights here and there. But it is an over-blown and over the top Romantic-with-a-capital-R story. Sorrows, indeed. Poor Werther.

Fast-forward over 100 years to 1892 and the first performance of an opera based on Goethe’s novel, entitled simply ‘Werther’, with music by the French composer Massenet. Massenet’s music is sweeping, hallucinogenic and involving; and the music he writes for the character of Werther is some of the loveliest, anguished, tormented stuff you could possibly wish for. Of course, you need an exception tenor for the role...and the other night at Covent Garden the Mexican tenor Ronaldo Villazón gave us his all, and if at times we might have thought he was going to have a heart attack, we could only be humbly grateful. It was a performance to bring a tear to the eye, and I for one was blown away by Werther’s aria in the Third Act, 'Pourquoi me reveiller', which is the most beautiful thing. 

Last Act of the opera
Now, the internet is rife with gossip about Villazon and his voice, with many people accusing him of over-singing and ruining his voice. Here he is singing 'Pourquoi me reveiller' in 2009 - see what you think. I'm no voice expert, but when you get the audience at Covent Garden weeping into their hankies, and then responding to you with a massive ovation, I think you have probably done OK.

I must also mention the divine Sophie Koch, who was our Charlotte. A wonderful mezzo voice, whom I had heard before singing Strauss in Dresden. Her she is, singing the role in 2010, and the production is the same one as has opened at Covent Garden.

And finally, the ROH conducter Antonio Pappano and Ronaldo Villazón discussing the opera's opening at Covent Garden.

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