Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
(1892; baritone version 1901)
Werther: Tassis Christoyannis (baritone)
Charlotte: Véronique Gens (soprano)
Sophie: Hélène Carpentier (soprano)
Albert: Thomas Dolié (baritone)
Children’s Choir of the Zoltán Kodály Hungarian Choir School
Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra/György Vashegyi
rec. 2023, Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, Müpa Budapest, Hungary
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
Reviewed as 16 bit WAV download
Bru Zane BZ1056 [2 CDs: 126]

Massenet started working on Werther in 1885 and finished it two years later. The composer offered it to the Paris Opéra-Comique, but the director thought it was too serious and declined. The same year the Opéra-Comique was destroyed, Massenet worked on other projects and Werther was left unperformed until 1892, when Manon was a great success at the Vienna Opera. The management wanted more Massenet to follow up the success, and thus Werther was belatedly premiered after five years, sung in German. The first French-language production took place later the same year in Geneva, and the next year it finally arrived in Paris at Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet but was not an immediate success; however, after it was staged at the new Opéra-Comique in 1903 it became a staple of the repertoire. In the meantime, it had premiered in both Chicago, Metropolitan in New York, and at Covent Garden 1894, and as early as 1902 was played in Saint Petersburg, where Mattia Battistini sang it in the version for baritone, which Massenet prepared explicitly for him. How much that version agrees with the one recorded here is not quite clear. Anyway, it is still the original tenor version that is commonly heard today, even though occasionally baritones have adopted the role, most prominently in our time Thomas Hampson, whose reading also has been preserved on DVD. It should be pointed out that only the title role differs from the original; everything else is intact from the original. 

Werther has been recorded numerous times, from the French Columbia recording with Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin in 1931, which still is regarded as one of the best. I haven’t heard all the available recordings, but of those I have heard each and every one has something to admire. The present one, besides being the rare baritone version, has the advantage of boasting an all-French cast. OK, the orchestra and chorus is Hungarian, and Tassis Christoyannis who takes the title role, is Greek-born, but having being a naturalised Frenchman for many years he is totally idiomatic, and the Hungarian forces are definitely very good. The fateful and bittersweet overture, which sets the scene so convincingly and brings the listener into the almost claustrophobic atmosphere that permeates this drama, is sensitively played, and that also goes for the interludes that seamlessly bind the scenes together. Overall, sensitivity is the buzzword for this production, and György Vashegyi makes Massenet’s impressionistic instrumentation shimmer. 

The opera at times verges on the sentimental, and it is a delicate act of balance to find  a suitable level. I think this works well on this recording. In Werther, more than in most other standard operas, the focus is on  the loving couple, Werther and Charlotte. By all means Albert and Sophie are also pawns in the game, but basically of marginal interest. The former is a rather foursquare character, but Thomas Dolié makes him a quite likeable person who shows a lot of warmth and tenderness, while Hélène Carpentier’s Sophie is a spirited, slightly naïve 15-year-old girl, who matures during the progress of story. She has a bright, soubrettish lyric voice, slightly acidulous, but she is expressive. The rest of the cast is mostly staffage, and they make the most of their limited opportunities. 

When we come to Werther and Charlotte, there is a certain age discrepancy between the role characters’ ages – Werther is, according to the libretto, 23, Charlotte 20. Tassis Christoyannis and Veronique Gens are double these ages – with interest. But don’t worry: both singers have preserved their voices eminently well. As a matter of fact, they are marvellously expressive and sensitive, and they mirror the various emotions so naturally. This are deeply considered readings. I imagine that they have spent many weeks testing dynamics, the colouring of their voices, and still they sound spontaneous, as though the readings are created in the heat of the moment. Here is love, passion, ecstasy, but also doubt, sorrow, desperation. Christoyannis especially is masterly in his deeply emotional outbursts. Long stretches of his monologues are delivered in delicious pianissimo, sometimes so nakedly intimately that one believes it is a confession. The death scene, almost whispered, is enormously moving – without being sentimental. Veronique Gens’ Charlotte is also very convincing, her voice shivering with emotions in the crucial scenes. Together they give multifaceted portraits of two of the most ill-fated characters in the opera repertoire. Others may react differently of course, and who am I to give a definitive verdict? What I know is that I still cannot decide which is my top candidate among a handful of excellent recordings of the tenor version; I’m just happy to have them all. Those who need further guidance can consult Ralph Moore’s survey of existing recordings of Werther, where he also evaluates the only previous recording of the baritone version – sung in Italian, as also Battistini did in Saint Petersburg. He wasn’t too positive, either about the recording or rewriting of Werther’s music. I found a lot to admire in the Bru Zane recording and will return to it with pleasure, when I am in baritone mood.

Göran Forsling

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Other cast
Le Bailli: Matthieu Lécroart (bass-baritone)
Schmidt: Artavazd Sargsyan (tenor)
Johann/Bryhlmann: Laurent Deleuil (baritone)