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Werther, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Werther, Royal Opera

Werther, Royal Opera

Sophie Koch steals Rolando Villazón's thunder

Sophie Koch (Charlotte) and Rolando Villazón (Werther) in Act III of Massenet's 'Werther': Will they? Won't they?Catherine Ashmore

We all knew about the throat problems and the vocal-cord-threatening surgery. But Rolando Villazón's post-operation return to the Royal Opera House last night appeared to reveal heart issues too. At least that was the only way I could explain the endless arm-swinging and chest-clutching. Twenty, perhaps 30, times he clutched and swung. Surely this wasn't Villazón's attempt to characterise Werther's heartache, was it?

For the first two acts, it seemed so. It initially blew a hole in the work. Jules Massenet's Werther is an economical drama. The libretto (an adaptation of Goethe's Sorrow of Young Werther) relies on soliloquies. One has to work very carefully to develop a detailed interior life for this young love-struck poet in order that we might believe him and, to some extent, care for his future. Villazón, however, rather than addressing his tormented soul, spent most of his time quite self-consciously courting the audience.

So for the first two acts we had to look elsewhere for our nourishment. Clearly from the cheers that followed, many found this succour in Villazón's voice. In the past, I'm sure I would have too. In one way, I was grateful that at least there was a voice; that there was still a controlled but ardent beam of sound coming from his lungs. But it must be said: it was not the warbling of old. The opalescent quality is gone. A smoother, smaller, more colourless stone remains. Still, as he settled into his stride, the musicality and even some of the fiery warmth returned.

But by the time Villazón had got going, so had Sophie Koch (Charlotte), the married object of Werther's attentions. And even though it was often impressive the way Villazón handled his long-breathed lines, Koch's effortless offerings, generous and full, stole the show. Unlike Villazón, she had already filled out the workings of her character's interior life with great credibility. The dutiful young woman of Act II gave way to an enfeebled self in Act III, crumbling as she read out her old flame's letters. All of it was attended to by the inky blackness of an alto sax, setting up a scene of Bergmanesque intensity when love-famished Werther returns.

Whatever the failures in direction in Benoit Jacquot's revival production, the music stayed true. Jules Massenet's washes of sound, halted by bold moments of colour were vividly conjured up by conductor Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House orchestra. It filled in for the subtlety that was lacking from the attendant roles; Eri Nakamura's overacted Sophie and Audun Iversen's underplayed Albert (Charlotte's blank betrothed).

Charles Edwards' sets had a couple of Biedermeier delights to offer: a towering door and wall in the first act like a scene from a Hubert Robert, transforming colour as the various lights of day and night passed over it, and a breathtaking final tableau, in which the scene of Werther's suicide, a garret, emerges slowly from the back of a snow-filled stage. Not to be too little-girl about it, but the descent of the starry flakes to a haze of pizzed ostinatiwas magical.

Act III of Benoit Jacquot's production of Werther: Sophie Koch (Charlotte) and Jonas Kaufmann (Werther) at the Opéra Bastille in 201

Villazón's throat troubles may yet have a greater affect on his stage charisma than on his voice

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