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Met Opera: A Fresh Look at Doomed Love in Massenet's "Werther"

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The love that burns with the brightest flame is often a love that is fated to fail, and the passion Massenet kindled in his opera Werther is about as doomed as any love can be, as Richard Eyre's dramatic new production at the Metropolitan Opera makes abundantly clear from the opening notes.

With the popular German tenor Jonas Kaufmann singing the title role and the French mezzo Sophie Koch delivering a lovely Met debut as Charlotte, the Met has given Massenet's romantic opera, based on Goethe's youthful epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, a fresh staging that employs imaginative use of video to set scenes and convey moods that are usually found only on the printed page.

It is a production that audiences around the world will be able to see on March 15 when the Met performs it as part of its Live in HD series via a simulcast to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries.

If it is a general rule of thumb in opera that things will end badly for the soprano, Werther is one of the exceptions in that it's the tenor who succumbs at the end. Goethe's short novel, written when he was 24 and based on a personal experience, is told in the form of letters a young poet, escaping the bustle of city to the bucolic joys of the country, writes to a friend back home. Only at the end, after the hero decides life is not worth living without the woman he loves and cannot have, does a narrator take over the story. It made Goethe famous and spawned an early 19th-century fad that became known as "Wertherism."

Massenet's sweeping music sets the mood for Werther's self-absorbed melancholy, especially the lyrical opening act tenor aria "Je ne sais si je veille," a sort of 18th-century tree-hugger's paean to Nature. Then Charlotte enters and he's head over heels for her at first sight. The only hitch is that she's already engaged to Alfred, and promised her mother on her deathbed that she would marry him.

Eyre, primarily known for his work in the theater and a former director of Britain's National Theatre, belongs to the school that calls for some movement onstage, even the operatic stage, at all times.

In the new Met production, Eyre uses video and live action to create a series of tableaux during the Prelude that begins with the proscenium framed as a Christmas card, then shows Charlotte's mother's death, and the funeral procession to the cemetery where a flock of huge black birds swoop in and look down on her grave from tree branches. It's the sort of beginning that can only end in tragedy.

Again using video created by Wendall K. Harrington, he marks the passage of seasons from winter to summer and transforms Charlotte's garden into a ballroom for her and Werther to waltz together, then back again to a garden. It's all masterfully done and enhances an opera in which there is little action apart from hand-wringing angst.

Kaufmann, a big Met favorite from his performance in Parsifal last season, certainly looks the part of a handsome young poet. In the opening acts he tends to emphasize the aloof and detached, almost wimpy, side of Werther, and sings as though he is holding something back. But he seems to become more resolute as Werther's death wish begins to take hold. His voice is strong and rich, though somewhat forced at the top, and his big third-act aria, "Pourquoi me reveiller," brought the house down.

Koch, who has sung Charlotte in Paris, Vienna, Madrid, London, and Chicago, is a portrait of tortured indecision, unable to reconcile her repressed love for Werther with her promise to her dying mother and her dutiful obligations to her husband Alfred. She has a clear voice that can soar to thrilling heights and her own third-act aria, "Va! Laisse couler mes larmes," as she re-reads Werther's letters, is thrilling. Her final act death scene with Kaufmann is gripping.

As Alfred, the Serbian basso David Bizic gives an impressive Met debut performance, and the soprano Lisette Oropesa, a Met regular, sings Charlotte's sister Sophie with great charm. Alain Altinoglu leads the Met orchestra in a measured reading of the score that brings out all the Romanticism of both Goethe and Massenet.