Massenet: Werther

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Massenet
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Werther
PERFORMER: Jerry Hadley, Anne Sofie von Otter, Dawn Upshaw; Lyon National Opera Orchestra & Chorus/Kent Nagano
CATALOGUE NO: 0630-17790-2
With practically all of Massenet’s operas now available in serviceable modern recordings, the time could hardly be riper for a new perspective on Werther, which, like the earlier Manon, has hardly been out of the repertoire. It’s not hard to understand why: Massenet’s versatility in providing a variety of stock yet vividly delineated dramatic contexts for his suffering and, at times, insufferable protagonist is unrivalled, and he knows, too, how to milk the dramatic irony without overdoing it.

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Yet for all its infallibility it does need careful handling. Werther is no Hamlet: he remains a self-obsessed, angst-ridden adolescent, limited in scope and imagination, calling for a finely nuanced approach on the part of the performer to compensate for the lack of more overtly histrionic opportunities. Alas, Jerry Hadley, despite his ample reserves of effortless mezzo-forte and above, hardly captures the agony and the ecstasy of Werther’s predicament. Nor does Nagano have the requisite sharpness of focus to point up character and the suppleness to carry the score smoothly and stylishly along, despite the wonderfully precise and warm playing of the Lyon orchestra and a recording which captures every detail of Massenet’s rich orchestral writing.

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Still, there are pleasures to be had here, not least an ideal Charlotte in Anne Sofie von Otter, firm yet young-sounding, and a perfect complement to Dawn Upshaw’s Sophie, girlish without being gushing. Even so, in the light of strong competition (the classic Thirties EMI recording with Georges Thill and the Carreras/Colin Davis on Philips), it remains hard to recommend this uneven newcomer.