You see, there's the opera, and then there's what they make out of it. The two Werthers are the one in Paris in February and the one in San Francisco in September. It would be difficult to imagine the same opera could be so different.
Usually reviewers save the singers for last, but I want to make clear both casts were very fine. In Paris Sophie Koch sang Charlotte and Jonas Kaufmann was Werther. In San Francisco Alice Coote was Charlotte and Ramón Vargas sang Werther. All four of them are very fine performers. Koch and Coote are great lyric mezzos. I enjoyed hearing Alice Coote very much.
Jonas and Ramón are both excellent tenors, but stylistically they are at opposite ends of the Fach. Jonas is cool and German. Ramón is hot and Latin. These factors all by themselves are going to change the quality of the experience. The musical quality of each performance was fully in synch with the style of its tenor. In Paris the very cool, very inwardly passionate Jonas Kaufmann was perfectly matched by the inward, lush, cool and impressionistic performance of the Paris Opera orchestra.
In San Francisco the more overtly passionate and southern Ramón Vargas was matched by the far more traditionally Romantic playing of the San Francisco Opera orchestra. In Paris the orchestra never covered Jonas no matter how loudly or softly he sang. In San Francisco they frequently played over Ramón, something that happens unacceptably often in San Francisco.
Werther in San Francisco was musically a pleasure but not the miracle of Paris.
Before I leave the music, "Va! laisse couler mes larmes" was beautifully sung by Alice Coote with an incredible accompaniment on the saxophone. Saxophone at the opera. It completely transformed my sense of the aria.
So that leaves the production. It is a lot easier for me to understand the titles and follow the plot when the titles are in English.
The Paris production was just a collection of large rooms conventionally but sparsely furnished. In SF we have a big square stage with neon all around, and only two ways on and off: a big hole in the floor and a narrow, cluttered obstacle course in one corner. There are telephone poles that turn into trees.
Toward the end there was a WTF moment when three guys line up and shoot themselves all at the same time. Then one of them stayed on the floor and played dead while Vargas got up and finished singing the rest of his part. Charlotte sang to the super on the floor.
Werther is a serious tragedy brought on by trying to do the right thing when emotions don't support it. This Werther is just a bunch of people screwing around. Or dreaming they are screwing around. Or hallucinating they are screwing around. Or some damn thing.
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