Massenet: Werther

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Werther
PERFORMER: Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Thomas Hampson, Patricia Petibon; LSO/Antonio Pappano
CATALOGUE NO: 381 8492


Maybe it’s because romantic suicide is hip again in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s and Michael Hutchence’s deaths; maybe it’s the catalyst of Goethe’s 250th anniversay; maybe it’s just a symptom of fin de siècle malaise. For whatever reason, here is the second new recording of Massenet’s Werther to appear in the past three months. And anyone who’s already acquired RCA’s recent set, with Ramón Vargas and Vesselina Kasarova, should certainly avoice hearing this EMI rival lest, like Charlotte, they realise too late (but hopefully with less tragic consequences) exactly what they’re missing. Like dull, solid Albert, RCA’s Mexican tenor and Bulgarian mezzo are good enough in their way, but who would want to have their all-purpose Italinate ‘can belto’ booming around the house once they’d sampled the real thing? I’ve never quite bought into the myth of ‘opera’s golden couple’ before but, after hearing this set, you can count me a life-member of the duo’s fan club. Alagna and Gheorghiu have surely never done anything better. He, of course, has really been a French tenor all along, and should now drop all that pizza-bar stuff and stick to his native rep: it needs him, even more now tha Alfredo Kraus is gone. Like Georges Thill, their great predecessor on the benchmark 1935 recording from the Opéra-Comique, Alagna (uniquely today) unites Italianate training with Gallic good taste: with a voice of bronzed splendour topped off by a seductively honeyed head-voice, his Werther is properly passionate and poetic by turns, at once ardently romantic in love and resolute in despair; I can’t wait to hear his Don José. With her plangent tones and exquisite phrasing, Gheorghiu too is absolute mistress of Massent’s moon-dappled half-lights, her Act III reading of Werther’s letters welling up into tears from untold depths of loneliness, longing and regret. With Thomas Hampson luxury casting in the almost monosyllabic role of Albert, and a stylishly Francophone company, suavely conducted by Antonio Pappano, this is now the Werther to have. Mark Pappenheim


Review of original release on CDS 5 56820 2, published November 1999