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OPERA

Review: Werther: A quicker death would have been merciful

Jules Massenet's opera Werther, based on Goethe's book and currently showing at the Slovenské Národné Divadlo, opens at this very spot in the story. The young poet Werther (played by Jozef Kundlák, a smallish man with a near pompadour) sees the nubile Charlotte (Denisa Šlepkovská) feeding her brothers and sisters bread. The familial sight stokes Werther's love for Charlotte, and soon he tells her all. She is receptive, but a shout from Albert, the suitor her dead mother preferred, tears her away.
This is only the end of the first act, and nothing much has happened, but opera is a world of fast decisions and irrevocable consequences - Werther's tragic course is set: he won't get the girl and that's going to kill him. But does the audience really care? Not really.

Werther

Where: Slovenské Národné Divadlo (Slovak National Theatre)
When: September 25, October 19
Rating: 4 out of 10

The British poet William Makepeace Thackeray once mocked the Goethe novel The Sorrows of Young Werther with the following verse:

'Charlotte having seen his body
Borne before her on a shutter,
Like a well-conducted person,
Went on cutting bread and butter.'

Jules Massenet's opera Werther, based on Goethe's book and currently showing at the Slovenské Národné Divadlo, opens at this very spot in the story. The young poet Werther (played by Jozef Kundlák, a smallish man with a near pompadour) sees the nubile Charlotte (Denisa Šlepkovská) feeding her brothers and sisters bread. The familial sight stokes Werther's love for Charlotte, and soon he tells her all. She is receptive, but a shout from Albert, the suitor her dead mother preferred, tears her away.

This is only the end of the first act, and nothing much has happened, but opera is a world of fast decisions and irrevocable consequences - Werther's tragic course is set: he won't get the girl and that's going to kill him. But does the audience really care? Not really.

Thackeray's comment goes to the heart of the problem. Charlotte is hardly moved by Werther in the beginning and her responses later are alternately priggish and melodramatic. Thus is her inevitable change of heart doubtful, and the fact that Werther (a poet) loves a woman like her at all creates a difficult dilemma for the audience: We can either believe in this man's love, or we can believe in him as a serious man.

In modern times it often seems as if characters in operas are no more mature than characters from, say, Beverly Hills 90210. Absence (not time together) drives emotion, barriers distort small (probably sexual) feelings into monumental tempests, and no one seems to remember that there are other fish in the sea. But when the acting and (especially) the music is excellent we raptly play along - which is the magic of opera.

For the first two acts, Werther at Slovenské Narodné Divadlo simply isn't good enough to get the audience to play along. Werther is silly, Charlotte is a zero, the other characters, except Albert, seem pointless, and there are no truly stunning musical moments. If tragedy is going to befall this cast, at least maybe it will be funny.

However, in act three, things take a surprising turn. Charlotte is more womanly, both in manner and words. Werther does not appear as changed, but his plight gains instant credibility when Kundlák delivers a stunning aria, by far the high point of the opera, and good enough to stall the performance with applause for half a minute. (During the first two acts the audience was embarrassingly silent.)

Heading to the finish, the cast hits their stride, the score is solid, but the story turns ridiculous. Werther comes back from apparent death so many times to debate with Charlotte who loves who more that when he finally dies we are glad. No audience likes to be fooled five times in a row with the same ploy.

Massenet himself experienced a tragic fall from grace. Once France's most popular composer, he died a bitter man in 1912, having been unfrocked by a new school of French musicians, led by Debussy, who mocked his light, lyrical style. Werther is considered by many his masterpiece.

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