Pappano’s Werther (ROH, 24 June 2016)

When I bought my ticket it was with JDD in mind, as up to that point several efforts to get into Werther had proved completely unsatisfying. That it had Grigòlo in the title role was, I thought, a good thing, since I had come to enjoy his sound and singing manner after a rough start.

I have by now learned to be cautious with singers because liking someone’s voice does not guarantee you will like them in every role and just going for something random can cause one to dimiss a perfectly good singer in a not so matching role. I’m saying this because I quite surprisingly am in agreement with the author or this review, which might be a first, though I read his stuff because he’s knowledgeable. Namely, I felt that neither JDD nor Grigòlo were quite right for their roles.

In the end, though, it wasn’t a bad night, thanks to Pappano and the ROH orchestra who was in excellent form. Even though I did not know before that this is a favourite of Pappano’s, I could tell he was in his element – everything ran smoothly, with details well fleshed out, and he had a very good hold on the whole (the thing felt well balanced across the acts). The orchestra purred; I especially enjoyed the contributions from the winds and brass, but they usually sound sweet. So there you go, saved by the conductor and the orchestra. Even the kids (you know how I feel about children in opera) did a very good job with their annoying carol.

Werther: Vittorio Grigòlo
Charlotte: Joyce DiDonato
Albert: David Bizic
Sophie: Heather Engebretson
The Bailli: Jonathan Summers
Johann: Yuriy Yurchuk
Schmidt: François Piolino
Brühlmann: Rick Zwart
Käthchen: Emily Edmonds
Conductor: Antonio Pappano | Orchestra of the ROH

I couldn’t tell you what my issue was with JDD vocally (reason for which I referred you to the above linked review in the first place) but I just felt like her sound wasn’t what was needed. I’ve heard her live twice before and each time she was more than convincing so I have no doubt about her abilities. But Charlotte might just not be her thing. I also didn’t “feel” her dramatically, which rather baffled me, as I consider her a very capable actress. She seemed way too chaste/bourgeois, more like the Charlotte in the book than the very ambivalent one in the opera. Yes, I think Charlotte isn’t a good idea.

Quite possibly the super traditional staging, which in turn gave us a very traditionally-looking Charlotte didn’t help her with carving a more physically tormented character. Sometimes – especially in these OTT Romantic operas – you want the tension and unease to ooze out of the singer and I didn’t get that though I had my one-eyed opera glasses on her at the most important moments. That being said I couldn’t fault her for trying to flesh out the inner conflict during L’air de la lettre and expertly employing some of her trademark diminuendos in act IV. Alas, sometimes trying isn’t enough.

I liked Grigòlo better. To be fair, his part is a lot more interesting musically – also there’s a lot more of it, as it should be. I liked him (his stage presence is very good, dashing but not overly masculine – let’s not forget Werther spends the entire opera whinging about unrequitted love) – I like his voice and I like his natural manner of singing. But I do agree he’s not particularly smooth when transitioning from anguish to gentleness, though he can do both and he sounds good in both. I think he likess fff better than pp and he was lucky Pappano conducted this with lots of vigor.

Dramatically, Werther and Charlotte are very unbalanced in this revival (the production debuted in 2004 but I don’t know how it was then) – he’s mad with love/horniness from the moment they meet and she’s prim and proper until almost the very end. I didn’t feel like he had any reason to be so ga-ga over this frumpy housewife (awful costumes and hair for Charlotte), though you could say he doesn’t need much, he’s unhinged and that’s that. But I don’t know, I think the whole point is a descent into desperation, because when the opera starts he’s all like “weee! I love nature! I love life!”.

The review talks about the production in positive terms but I didn’t get all the subtle stuff. It’s most certainly not ugly, even pleasant in act I, with the oversized, diagonally placed wooden gate and ivy covered wall, complete with occasionally broken plaster (maybe that’s one of the subtle hints?). But it’s what it is, it does the job and that’s that. There is indeed a very technically accomplished timelapse done with lighting during the instrumental bit that illustrates the time when Werther and Charlotte are at the party in act I but to me that felt like big whoop. It does nothing dramatically. Likewise, the “snowflakes” (which look more like fireflies) in act IV are very pretty but still so what.

I think it would be wrong to say there’s no chemistry between Grigòlo and JDD but not on level with, say, VK and Alagna a few years back in Vienna. I liked that production a lot better as it gave them the opportunity to match the OTT-ness of the music with very intense acting (also it gives us more of an idea of who the hell Charlotte might be under the duty! children!1 mother’s deathbed promise! veneer). JDD manages to convey the post-marital depression borne out of trying to repress her attraction to Werther but it comes out as merely catatonic.

There’s one character who comes off very well and that is, oddly, Sophie. Charlotte’s younger sister (dude, the Bailli has 8 children, obviously by two different wives, given the large age difference between the older sisters and the wee ones) usually comes off as annoying but Engebretson manages to be only marginally so; she fits the production very well, you get the feel of the classic younger sister with a crush on the older sister’s boyfriend (or, in this case, would be boyfriend). She’s also a good singer, who doesn’t overdue2 it though she makes the most of her role.

Piolino and Yurchuk were entertainting3 in their secondary roles, as well, though comic relief characters always make me raise a metaphorical eyebrow in proper tragedies like this. Especially as they were hamming it up with lots of gusto, which made it feel like they were rather in the comedy next door. Considering that the mood in the Remain camp was a bit more than sombre yesterday, I was a lot less ready to see the fun in their campiness than I normally would. On the other hand I really empathised with Werther’s brooding and especially with Pappano’s flights of fff brass – so good it bears repeating.

So what do I think about Werther the opera? It’s better than I gave it credit for so far, though I’ll probably stick with live renditions, if possibly in the house or with visuals.


  1. Don’t you just love what a paragon of traditional femininity she is? Not yet married and with 6 (six!) children already! But not her own, of course. She’s chaste, remember? 
  2. I like the slip so I’ll leave it in. 
  3. This one too – entertainting indeed. 

About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on June 25, 2016, in french opera, live performances, mezzos & contraltos, royal opera house, tenors and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Thank you for the trip to ROH! (now that traveling in person will get more grueling in pass controls, likely… ;-> )

    • leaver-types have long been bitching that opera was the past time of the rich and its subsidies (such as they are) should be cut so it’s hard to think they would miss it 😉

      but you know they (ROH) actually check your bags when you enter, I keep forgetting to mention it.

  2. she has a radio-recording from Paris last month w/ JDF, (Stray has a copy), perhaps you can listen a 2nd round to see if audio-only (and w/ shiny JDF) might change your perspective? 😉

    (ps- actually for me entering UK is the same coming from any direction regardless of whether i was in EU as original point or not… i guess now there will be a HUGE line of all other EU travelers joining me at Luton/Gatwick/Heathrow…)

    • maybe JDF is god in this? not in a hurry, though.

      wouldn’t you need a visa for EU and one for UK if the split goes through?

      • luckily i’m able to travel to both simply as visitor without visa.. but am now realizing the difference between “flying to London” and “flying to Europe”!!
        i can imagine the headache for artists.. (but you know, UK is probably as hostile to enter as US in my view, so i’m sure if they made me line up to enter before, they would have already required all artists from countries needing visa to obtain separate for UK even before this…)

        • aha, I didn’t know that’s how it is. Is this a thing between the US and EU?

          I remember AN getting Austrian nationality because she was tired of always queueing to renew her visa. I suppose ROH might get less international singers then… Queueing for visa is one of the most humiliating experiences, I hated it.

          • oh, that reminds me.. i guess part of the negotiation of brexit is what will happen to all the EU people ( 🙂 ) working there right? and/or all the brits in EU..
            i think in general US and western europe = free entrance (same w/ US + UK but of course the queue to clear custom is another matter..).
            Didn’t we once pass around Marina Poplavskaya’s interview discussing visas? 🙂
            (the Japanese might have some secret backdoor handshake… i was so shocked to hear they can enter Vietnam without a visa!! nobody is allowed into a communist country without one i thought..)

            • Apparently those who are already in place won’t be shoved back to where they came from, just new ones won’t be allowed. But frankly nobody really knows because the dimwitted politician lot that backed the leave vote don’t seem to have a plan of action (rumour has it they didn’t bank on actually winning).

              aha, it was Pops who said at the customs they asked her how come she had a “special qualifications” visa or whatever it’s called and no one wanted to believe her when she said she was an opera singer. As if opera singers are some rare breed 😉

              Western Europe, eh? How about them Eastern European countries that are in the EU these days?

              Maybe you had some special deal with the Japanese like US sometimes had with certain countries behind the Iron Curtain.

              • didn’t she say when she’s done singing she would work as a visa officer? 😉
                (i have never entered eastern europe! (no friend there, until now 😉 )
                here, my former hausmate has been busy sharing point-of-view from western europe (it’s a cartoon). jokes aside, i’m truly still baffled by the amount of brainwash and the fact people don’t understand what they’re voting for and yet passionately bandwagon along.. there are now reports of record number of search from UK for “what is the E.U.” and “what does it mean to leave the E.U.”…

                • most of the leavers didn’t so much care about the EU (though they bought the EU bogey man because EU is foreign) as they wanted to “stick it to the man” because the campaign for the EU was conducted by people with very low credibility among the poor (the prime minister, various rich people). Also, as usual in times of recession, xenophobia raises its ugly head.

                  my favourite reoccurring comment was that “EU is undemocratic because we only have one vote”.

                  the cartoon is spot on 🙂

          • also the line-up at wigmore hall will suffer i suspect …
            (speaking of that, i was lurking.. didn’t Devia already sing? 🙂 )

            • oh, Devia did sing but she was quite under the weather and cut the show short. At some point I might write a post about a few performances I didn’t write about…

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