2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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Hugo Shirley

Visiting the Staatsoper can be a bit hit and miss. It might possess in its raised pit one of the great opera-house orchestras of the world, but they’re a famously single-minded bunch, and the house’s repertory system, funded by generous state subsidies, allows a mind-boggling number of shows per season. It’s a set-up that can breed a certain routine, but if the orchestra is on form, and the stellar casts come into alignment, there are few single institutions that can squeeze so much high-quality opera into such a short time. Such was the case over three days in April, when it was all about the versions: the Baritonfassung of Massenet’s Werther, and the Urfassungen of Boris Godunov and Don Carlos. That meant as much of Werther as usual, less of Boris (the ‘Polish’ act was only added later, of course), but a great deal more of Don Carlos—five acts in French, woodcutters, ballet and all.


For the Massenet, Roberto Saccà’s indisposition robbed Vesselina Kasarova’s Charlotte of her tenor, but Ludovic Tézier, already in town singing Rodrigue, stepped in at the last minute. The announcement assured us of the baritone-Werther’s authenticity: the composer himself had revised his score (premiered, in a German version, at Vienna’s Hofoper in 1892) for Mattia Battistini to sing in St Petersburg in 1902. Yet, while it might have come from Massenet’s pen, it evidently did so rather hastily, with the vocal line adjusted to fit the baritone range but few if any appreciable adjustments to anything else. While Werther sings his modified lines, then, we still hear the familiar melodies from the pit, to rather disconcerting effect. Nevertheless, with the orchestra living and breathing the music so instinctively and affectionately as it did on April 22, the compensations were many.


The Dresden-trained conductor Michael Guettler helped underline the score’s glorious lyricism, while Tézier himself seemed to negotiate the taxing tessitura with an almost casual ease, the appealing, grainy voice spinning out long, generous phrases. Kasarova’s Charlotte was impassioned and compellingly drawn, even if the Bulgarian mezzo’s dark, sensuous voice was occasionally unwieldy when it came to intonation. She, in particular, had to work against Andrei Serban’s rather grottily updated 2005 production to elicit sympathy; that she and Tézier still drew us into the drama is testament to their performances, and to the fine work from the supporting cast (the easy command of Daniela Fally’s Sophie stuck in the mind).

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