Passions Discovered: Werther from the Opéra national Montpellier Occitanie

Massenet – Werther

Le Bailli – Julien Véronèse
Charlotte –
Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Sophie –
Pauline Texier
Werther –
Mario Chang
Albert –
Jérôme Boutillier
Schmidt –
Yoann Le Lan
Johann –
Matthias Jacquot

Chœur Opéra Junior, Chœur Dames Opéra national Montpellier Occitanie, Orchestre national Montpellier Occitanie / Jean-Marie Zeitouni.
Stage director – Bruno Ravella.  Video director – Andy Sommer.

Opéra national Montpellier Occitanie, Montpellier, France.  Thursday, May 20th, 2021.  Streamed via Operavision.

This Werther should have been the highlight of the 2020 – 21 at the Opéra national de Montpellier but, like so many shows over the past two years, the run was curtailed and it was given a single performance in front of the public.  Fortunately for us, the show was recorded and has been made available thanks to Operavision until June on their website.  This production was also notable for giving us Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s prise de rôle as Charlotte, alongside Guatemalteco tenor Mario Chang, under the baton of Lemieux’s compatriot Jean-Marie Zeitouni, and a remaining cast made up of Francophone singers.

Photo: © Marc Ginot

Bruno Ravella’s staging, here revived by José Dario Innella, is certainly handsome to look at.  The action initially takes place in an attractive drawing room, designed by Leslie Travers, where the ceiling becomes a magnificent starry sky in that first glorious duet between Werther and Charlotte.  Similarly, Ravella gives us a sense of the world outside, with Schmidt and Johann singing down at Werther trapped in the room as they celebrate Sunday.  In the later acts, the room becomes a dark space with a lengthy corridor appearing to lead off to a brighter place, thereby emphasizing the characters’ isolation and despair.  It certainly makes for an interesting visual framework and Andy Sommer’s camera work gives us a consistent close-up on the action, even if perhaps sometimes we would benefit from a more distant perspective, simply to get a fuller sense of Ravella’s stage pictures.  The benefit of the close-up camerawork, however, was the opportunity to see the intricacies of the individual performances.  While there was a fair bit of standing and delivering, in Lemieux’s Charlotte one could see a progression from a playful woman, to a devastated soul who had felt she had lost a chance of happiness that fleeting.  The costumes (also by Travers) allowed us to reflect on a time where morality and keeping up appearances would take precedence over any chance of happiness.

Photo: © Marc Ginot

Chang’s Werther was certainly prone to serious introspection combined with passionate outbursts.  He had clearly worked carefully on the language and his French was comprehensible.  Some of the diphthongs were a little inconsistent in pronunciation, but this was undoubtedly a creditable effort.  Werther is a massive sing and Chang acquitted himself well.  He pulled back on the tone and shaded it with great beauty in Act 1, while also opening up and pouring out some golden ardent tone.  As the evening developed however, it became clear that the role is perhaps a size too big for his current vocal estate, with intonation coming in and out of focus, and the top not quite spinning in ‘pourquoi me réveiller’.  His is a most attractive tenor and while he sang with deep feeling and beauty of tone, this is a role that I hope he will eventually grow into.

Photo: © Marc Ginot

Lemieux, however, is already there as Charlotte.  Incredible to think that this was a role debut as it seems she had been born to sing this role and had been singing it all her life.  She also understands her instrument and wasn’t afraid to allow those cries of despair to ring out with almost terrifying abandon.  She sang ‘va! Laisse couler mes larmes’ with an almost paradoxical combination of poise and supressed emotion desperately wanting to come to the surface, not to mention the generous warmth of her chest register.  Her letter scene was sung with commanding generosity, with introspection and yet with depth of feeling in the way she coloured the text.  In the final scene, Lemieux found an ecstasy in the way she finally felt able to confess her true feelings for Werther that was utterly compelling.  A major assumption of this iconic role. 

Photo: © Marc Ginot

The remainder of the cast was indeed very satisfactory.   Jérôme Boutillier sang Albert with a firm baritone, his breakdown during the Act 4 prelude utterly devastating to see a once proud man diminished.  Pauline Texier sang Sophie in a bright, crystalline soprano and managed to make her character much more sympathetic than we often see.  Julien Véronèse sang Le Bailli in a resonant bass, while Yoann Le Lan and Matthias Jacquot sang Schmidt and Johann with admirable clarity of diction.  The children’s and ladies’ choruses pealed agreeably in their interjections, although their pitching was slightly approximate. 

Photo: © Marc Ginot

The house orchestra was on superb form for Zeitouni.  He led a reading that was sensibly-paced, allowed the textures to surge romantically, but also gave his singers room to phrase with generosity, although there were occasionally some dips in tension throughout the evening.  Due to the sanitary precautions in place, the orchestra was placed surrounding Zeitouni on the ground floor of the auditorium.  He obtained playing that combined both darkness of texture, with a deep pile carpet of warmth in the lower strings, and extreme delicacy where required.  

Photo: © Marc Ginot

Thanks are most certainly due to Montpellier and to Operavision for giving us the opportunity to see this production and making it available more widely.  Dramatically, it has much to offer, Ravella’s staging provides a visual framework for the action that provides some memorable stage pictures, but also makes us aware of the morality of the period and need to present outward respectability.  Musically, it offers significant rewards – Chang’s Werther is bravely sung and the supporting cast is extremely satisfying.  Zeitouni’s conducting brings out both passion and introspection and is superbly served by the orchestra.  Yet, it’s in Lemieux’s Charlotte that this staging finds its heart and soul, a woman desperate to allow the floodgates of her emotions to open, sung with deep feeling and constant textual awareness.  A very special interpretation indeed.   

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