Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who starred in the title role of Richard Eyre’s 2014 production of Werther, explains why Massenet and Goethe are such a good fit in an interview conducted in advance of the staging’s premiere. By Philipp Brieler
Werther is one of the essential characters of literature and opera. What attracts you to the role?
He’s as extreme as you could wish for—especially if you love portraying difficult characters as much as I do! Roles like Werther, Don José, or Don Carlo to me are much more attractive than the typical “Latin lover” characters. They’re much more interesting and demanding, both musically and dramatically. What attracts me particularly is the challenge to make a character like Werther understandable and likeable for the audience. He is a manic-depressive who falls in love for the first time, with a girl who is promised to another guy. He’s completely fixated on her and can’t help loving her more than his life. I don’t think it’s that easy for a modern audience to like him. If you put too much weight on the suffering, you risk that people will keep their distance and say, “Oh, come on, get over it!” But to me, he is a likeable guy: This is his first love, and he suffers so much because he isn’t prepared for the pains of unhappy love. So I try to balance the suffering and self-destruction with other aspects—his religious faith, his fascination with the miracles of nature, and all those things we think of as Romanticism.
How would you characterize the role vocally?
Like most tenor roles in the French repertoire, Werther is both lyrical and dramatic—sometimes very sweet and soft, sometimes very passionate, even aggressive … There are so many beautiful and magical moments in Massenet’s music.
Do you see a difference between Massenet’s Werther and Goethe’s?
I think Goethe and Massenet are a far better match than, say, Goethe and Gounod. If you look at Faust, the characters in the opera are pretty far away from Goethe, whereas Massenet got really close to the specific style of the novel. I doubt that any German composer would have been able to capture as many of its colors and emotions as vividly as Massenet did.
Do you remember when you first read the Goethe novel?
It was in high school, I must have been 15 or 16. The story may have seemed a bit kitschy to us then, but I remember we were fascinated that a single book could have had such a strong impact on an entire generation, even leading some people in similar situations to commit suicide!
Having sung Werther in several productions, how has your portrayal developed over time?
Characters like Werther develop with every single performance. There’s one
essential thing I learned from [director] Giorgio Strehler early in my career: Never give the same performance twice, never repeat yourself. Always try to create a new portrayal.
This will be your fourth Met production to be seen live in movie theaters. Do you think the transmissions have changed the way audiences experience opera?
I think one of the reasons the HD performances have had such an impact, compared to productions released on DVD, is that they’re live—no corrections, just the real thing. And instead of 4,000 people inside the Met, a few hundred thousands all over the world get to share it. You can never transfer the atmosphere of a live performance to a movie theater, but on the other hand the cinema audience gets much closer to the action than you ever would in the opera house. A good close-up can intensify the dramatic situation as well as the musical expression.
You first sang Werther in 2010 in Paris, opposite Sophie Koch as Charlotte. What are you most looking forward to about reuniting with her?
I have to admit that singing my first Werther in the center of French opera was a bit risky. But it went very well, especially with a colleague like Sophie. Doing a new production with her at the Met is a great pleasure—I’m looking forward to creating a new chapter in our Werther story!