Massenet: Werther

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1.0 out of 5 star rating 1.0

COMPOSERS: Massenet
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Werther
PERFORMER: Marcus Haddock, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, René Massis, Jaël Azzaretti; Orchestre National de Lille/Jean-Claude Casadesus
CATALOGUE NO: 8.660072-73
This set faces fierce competition, not least from Naxos’s own remastering of the 1931 Paris Opéra-Comique version starring Georges Thill and Ninon Vallin – still the first choice for connoisseurs. Like that classic set, and unlike its most recent rivals (Vargas and Kasarova with Jurowski on RCA, Alagna and Gheorghiu with Pappano on EMI), this one, too, is an essentially Gallic affair, taped live in Lille in 1999. Sadly, over the intervening 60-odd years, international verismo has invaded even the gentle world of Massenet’s Wetzlar and driven out the old French virtues of graceful eloquence, pure lines and passionate restraint.

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Werther is a work full of emotions, it’s true; but, intense as they are, they are also contained. With Casadesus tending to over-whip the drama (though he begins well enough, delicately etching in the dappled shades of the Act I moonlit walk), this reading feels like an Andrew Davies TV adaptation – all added sex and heavy breathing (or, to paraphrase the first French Werther, ‘too much noise, too little feeling’).

The worst offender is Béatrice Uria-Monzon, whose sumptuous but spreading tone and generalised emoting make a bosom-heaving nympho of Massenet’s ‘virtuous wife’, while her poor breath control chops the lovely, long lines of her ‘Air des larmes’ into ugly, shapeless chunks. Thankfully, the American tenor Marcus Haddock (last year’s Glyndebourne Don José) has more like the right idea. Though the voice itself is big and burly, and its delivery often over-effortful, his is a Werther of deep inner feelings and some sensitivity, too, and he rises to true poetic pathos for the unspoken might-have-beens behind his Act III Ossian song (and even Thill cracked on that climactic A sharp). The Sophie (Jaël Azzaretti), too, is a delight, a classic light French soprano, pert but not, for once, too cloying.

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Though recorded in concert – not at ‘stage performances’, as claimed on the box (the misleading cover photo is of a 1997 Swedish production) – the sound is dull and distant, the volume level low. The booklet has a good note but the libretto comes in French only – a false economy, like buying this set. Mark Pappenheim