From the Archives: Werther at the Met
By Peter Clark
Massenet’s Werther debuted at the Metropolitan in 1894—a mere two years after its world premiere—with an illustrious lead romantic duo of tenor Jean de Reszke and soprano Emma Eames. In fact, what success it received was that of the singers rather than the opera itself, and only two performances were given that year, with one more three seasons later in 1897.
“The tumultuous applause which rang through the Metropolitan Opera House was evoked not alone by the work in hand, but to a large extent by the impassioned tones and acting of Jean de Reszke, and the sweet and gentle embodiment of Mme. Eames … I, for my part, have but little faith in the ultimate popularity of Werther.” So wrote the New York Herald critic.
A new production in the 1909–10 season came as part of a scheme to expand the Met’s repertory through performances at an additional venue. The idea of a smaller theater where the company could give works not suited to a large auditorium has been a recurring theme in Met history. In 1909, the first realization of that aim took place at the recently built New Theatre on Central Park West at 62nd Street (pictured above). The programming plan, which mixed spoken theater and light opera, or operetta, originally came from Heinrich Conried, the Met’s general manager from 1903 to 1908. Management had since passed to Giulio Gatti-Casazza, backed by the generous arts patron and president of the Metropolitan Opera Company, Otto Kahn. Kahn personally invested in the New Theatre project, so the Met mounted a season of unusual repertory—much of it French—for the 1909–10 season. Werther was the first opera given at the New Theatre. The star tenor of Paris’s Opéra-Comique, Edmond Clément (pictured below), took the title role, with the glamorous Geraldine Farrar as Charlotte. This time, Werther had ten performances, including two at the Metropolitan Opera House, where the evening was enhanced by adding the ballet Coppélia, danced by the legendary Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Mordkin.
The New Theatre foundered as an opera venue after this first season, partly due to poor acoustics, but also because of bad timing. Competition from Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera was still active in that year (the Met bought him out later in 1910), and French opera was very much the focus of that company’s repertory. But even as a theater, the New Theatre failed. After being renamed the Century Theater in 1911, it was demolished and replaced with The Century apartment building in 1931.
Werther entered a 60-year period of oblivion at the Met, but eventually returned in the final season of Rudolf Bing’s regime in 1971–72 with a new production by Paul-Émile Deiber, designed by Rudolf Heinrich. Franco Corelli, the tenor for whom the production was mounted, cancelled the opening, which was sung instead by Enrico di Giuseppe, with the superb mezzo Christa Ludwig as Charlotte. In that season alone, 17 performances were given, more than all that Werther had received previously. Corelli returned to the cast after the premiere, and Charlotte was sung by Rosalind Elias and Régine Crespin alternating at later performances. (Corelli and Crespin are pictured above.) A certain tension between authentic French style and uninhibited vocalism in these performances was reflected in a New York Times review. “Régine Crespin’s Charlotte, mature in appearance and somewhat edgy in sound, was so exquisitely inflected in the singing as to set a standard for the rest of the performance … Franco Corelli is not much of a vocal stylist, yet when the Corelli sound coincided with the most impassioned of Massenet’s scenes, the effect was exciting.”
Inevitably, Werther depends on a charismatic leading couple, as proven in subsequent revivals that featured Plácido Domingo with Elena Obraztsova, Alfredo Kraus with Crespin again, Kraus with Frederica von Stade, and Neil Shicoff with Tatiana Troyanos.
A revised staging of the Deiber/Heinrich production was mounted in 1999 using the edition Massenet had rewritten in 1902 for the baritone Mattia Battistini to sing the title role. Thomas Hampson took the role of Werther with Susan Graham as Charlotte (pictured above). The 2004 revival (pictured at the top of this page) featured a French tenor, Roberto Alagna (pictured below), in the title role for the first time at the Met, reconciling any conflict between idiomatic style and full-throated vocalism.
In 2014, Richard Eyre directed the first new Met production of Werther in 43 years, with tenor Jonas Kaufmann as the handsome romantic hero and French mezzo Sophie Koch as Charlotte.
As in the past, success counted in large part on the leading singers. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote: “To be a great Werther, a tenor must somehow be charismatic yet detached, vocally impassioned yet ethereal. Mr. Kaufmann is ideal in the role … The ovations for this superb cast, especially the great Mr. Kaufmann, went on and on.”
Another attractive, youthful pair brought Werther convincingly to life again in the 2017 revival when Vittorio Grigolo and Isabel Leonard, following in the footsteps of so many legendary predecessors, interpreted the leading roles.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives.