Werther, New York Metropolitan Opera, January 2004
                                                                 Photo of Alagna and Kasarova by Ken Howard

'Werther' a Highlight at Met, Associated Press, 4 January 2004
A Self-Obsessed Hero With a Dashing Presence, New York Times, 5 January 2004
Making 'Werther' Young, Newsday, 5 January 2004
Werther, The Financial Times, 7 January 2004
Alagna brings glowing tone and romantic truth to Massenet's 'Werther', Classics Today, January 2004 [external link]
Old at Heart, New York Metro, 13 January 2004
Soberbio Alagna en Nueva York, El Nuevo Dia, 17 January 2004
New York Chronicle (excerpt), The New Criterion, Vol. 22, No. 7, March 2004
'Werther' a Highlight at Met
Ronald Blum, Associated Press, 4 January 2004

NEW YORK - To honor Franco Corelli, the Metropolitan Opera dedicated its opening performance of Massenet's "Werther" to the famed Italian tenor, who died in October.

The current production, which dates to 1971, was conceived around Corelli, who was indisposed for the opening performance but later sang in the staging to great acclaim. This season, "Werther" is being mounted for Roberto Alagna, whose performance Friday night was perhaps his finest at the Met since his 1996 debut.

Heralded as the next big tenor to follow Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, Alagna was presented to the public with huge hype. Now 40, he is without peer in the French lyric tenor repertoire.

His Charlotte was Vesselina Kasarova, the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano whose Met debut was pushed back from 1997 to 2002 when she twice caught colds.

Together, Alagna and Kasarova created a gripping performance filled with uncommon intensity and distinguished singing, a highlight of the Met season.

From start to finish, Alagna looked dashing as the tragic Werther, who falls in love with Charlotte but kills himself because she is promised to another man. He looked like a man coming apart when he moved to the front of the stage for "Pourquoi me reveiller (Why do you wake me now)," his great third-act aria. During his death scene, he fell to the floor from his bed with a convincing thud. Only on a couple of sustained forte notes was there a hint of strain.

Charlotte loves Werther but cannot marry him because she promised her mother on her deathbed that she would marry Albert. Kasarova gradually increased Charlotte's angst until the Christmas Eve scene, where she breaks down and admits her love for Werther. Kasarova has a huge burnished voice but one that also is tightly focused. She is thinking of taking on heavier roles, such as Bizet's "Carmen," and she seems up to the task.

Filling out the cast were Lyubov Petrova, whose bright soprano made for a spunky Sophie; baritone Christopher Schaldenbrand, who gave a well-sung but stiffly acted Albert; and Paul Plishka, with a hammy portrayal of The Bailiff, Charlotte's father.

Jacques Lacombe conducted in his Met debut, taking over from Michel Plasson, who canceled several weeks ago because of illness. Lacombe, the principal guest conductor of the Montreal Symphony, led a broad account of the score.

Rudolf Heinrich's sets and costumes look somewhat dated. While Paul-Emile Deiber created the original direction, the opera was restaged by John Cox five years ago when the Met revived the work in the rare baritone version for Thomas Hampson. Cox's direction has the singers at the front of the stage during key moments, an effective technique on the Met's huge stage.

A Self-Obsessed Hero With a Dashing Presence
Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, 5 January 2004

There are truly great qualities to the singing of the popular tenor Roberto Alagna. Yet from the time he was unhelpfully touted by his recording company in the mid-1990's as "the fourth tenor" until today, he has never rid his singing of some frustrating vocal idiosyncrasies. That was true again on Friday night when Massenet's "Werther," in the Metropolitan Opera's dusty 1971 production, returned to the company with Mr. Alagna in the title role. The evening also offered the alluring mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova as Charlotte and an appealing young Canadian conductor, Jacques Lacombe, in his Met debut. But Mr. Alagna was the main draw.

Though Massenet's operas, hugely popular in their day, can seem musically thin and dramatically cloying to modern audiences, "Werther," based on the Goethe novel, is his strongest and most involving work. But only if you have the right tenor in the title role of an aimless courtier, a dabbler in poetry intoxicated with his own perceptions of life who is seeking refuge in the country from emotional entanglements and the loss of a loved one.

Mr. Alagna, a dashing stage presence, embodied the role. As an actor he can sometimes be self-absorbed, but that quality was perfect for Werther, who falls instantly and helplessly in love with the good-hearted Charlotte, the lovely eldest daughter and surrogate mother to the children of the widowed Bailiff (the manager of the royal estate at Wetzlar in late 18th-century Germany). That Charlotte promised her dying mother to marry the eligible businessman Albert just makes her more appealing to Werther: she is the idealized, unattainable woman.

Through his ardently sung and impetuous portrayal, Mr. Alagna conveyed the sense that Werther's fatal devotion is more about his own obsessions than Charlotte's desires. He gave a boldly physical performance. Not many tenors during the final scene when the despondent Werther dies of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, could roll off a bed and fall flat onto the floor as Mr. Alagna did.

You must credit this French tenor with a keen understanding of French operatic style. The enunciation of the text and the formation of the vocal sound go hand in hand in the French way. His phrasing was supple and pliant. He captured that slightly nasal vocal quality of the French idiom without turning it into an affectation.

Yet, as on many nights with this proudly self-reliant singer, there were trouble spots in his singing, a result it seemed of technical glitches. Interestingly, he reveled in the full-voiced top notes that would test most tenors. But his mid-range singing was sometimes patchy. His sound would turn leathery; his voice would catch in the throat mid-phrase.

His singing stood in contrast to Ms. Kasarova's, whose dusky, warm voice was wonderfully suited to Charlotte's music. Though her performance was not flawless, here was a vocalist who understood the ways of her voice. The strapping and robust baritone Christopher Schaldenbrand was Albert, and it makes a difference to the overall drama when this character is portrayed as a decent, handsome and appealing husband. The love between Werther and Charlotte must seem consuming and irrational. There should be no obvious reason for her unhappiness in her marriage.

The lyric soprano Lyubov Petrova was a delightful Sophie, Charlotte's perky younger sister, and an oblivious innocent. The bass Paul Plishka made a gruff-toned, verbally indistinct Bailiff. Mr. Lacombe led a surely paced and rhapsodic account of the score, replacing the veteran French conductor Michel Plasson, who withdrew some weeks ago because of illness.

The whole cast received a prolonged ovation, but Mr. Alagna understandably drew the most vociferous bravos. Whatever his technical flaws, he excites audiences and is the real thing: a stylish French tenor. There are five more performances through Jan. 22.

Making 'Werther' Young
Justin Davidson, Newsday, 5 January 2004

Alagna smooths the wrinkles of Massenet's plush opera

Massenet's "Werther," a creaky rattletrap of an opera with a beautifully upholstered score, makes a perfectly good vehicle, particularly for Roberto Alagna. The French tenor returned to the Metropolitan Opera Friday in the title role and gave a performance that finally justified the hyperventilating appraisals that accompanied his first American appearances in the mid- 1990s. He rode the gentle surf of Massenet's music, scudding lightly through long, warm phrases and up to quiet peaks. He sang intimately, meditatively, sweetly, without the forced extroversion that has sabotaged him in the past.

Thanks to his Mediterranean heritage and swashbuckling PR, Alagna first appeared on the scene as the purported answer to the shortage of Italian tenors, the sort of singer with the olive-oil tone and liquid power to fill out the classic Verdi and Puccini leads. But his voice always seemed too brittle for those roles, and his bluster overshadowed his singing.

In 19th century French music, however, he has few, if any equals. Alagna is at his best with hazy half-lights, rounded vowels and mild consonants, singing music that is ecstatic and solemn at the same time. Here, the brittleness becomes vulnerability and the slender voice sounds pliant. "Pourquoi me réveiller," the centerpiece aria of "Werther," has long been one of Alagna's three-minute specialties, regularly trotted out for fund- raising galas, and on Friday it was a marvel of elegance and melancholy.

Rather than go for bell-ringing top notes, he executes the much more difficult feat of reaching the upper register in a downy pianissimo. It's a lovely sound, one that few tenors try and those who do mostly fake, but Alagna really has it.

"Werther" has been a rarity at the Met, although it is full of meaty, late 19th century music, served in a rich, romantic gravy of orchestration. Three cooks worked on the libretto, and boiled Goethe's "Sorrows of Young Werther" down to a scant residue of drama: Werther loves Charlotte but cannot have her, so he kills himself. Charlotte feels bad about that.

The characters are unifaceted: Werther's personality is indistinguishable from his desire, which makes him boringly adolescent and narrows the emotional range at a tenor's disposal. Charlotte has her generosity of spirit, an even less fascinating quality on which to base an opera character, and Vesselina Kasarova brought fine, upstanding vocalism and a burnished- copper mezzo-soprano to the meager role. Lyuba Petrova had more fun as Charlotte's pert sister Sophie.

The Québécois conductor Jacques Lacombe made a valuable Met debut, bringing a Gallic sound to a company that until recently tended to approach French opera as a slightly distasteful chore. The Met's current production of "Werther" dates from the Nixon era, and although it was later patched up and restaged, it still possesses a certain retro mothball chic.


WERTHER. Music by Jules Massenet. Libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann. Production by John Cox. With Lyubov Petrova, Vesselina Kasarova, Roberto Alagna and Christopher Schaldenbrand. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Jacques Lacombe. Attended at Friday's opening. Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center. Repeated tomorrow and January 10, 15, 19 and 22.

Martin Bernheimer, The Financial Times, 7 January 2004

So how do you like your Werther? If you want to take Massenet's perfumed distillation of Goethe's novella seriously as musical drama, if you regard the protagonist as a credibly melancholy poet, then the current facsimile at the Metropolitan Opera is not for you. If, on the other hand, you accept the poignant score as an excuse for an old-fashioned concert-in-costume, if you think there's a mighty magnet in the prompter's box that always draws the divo to the footlights, hasten to Lincoln Center.

The apparent raison d'être for the latest revival, which opened on Friday, is Roberto Alagna, tenor heart-throb du jour. A native of Clichy-sous-Bois, he articulates the French text suavely - a claim that cannot be made for many of his colleagues here. He also commands the technique to phrase extended pianissimo passages exquisitely. Unfortunately, he tends to substitute self-satisfied macho poses for character delineation, and whenever a high climax looms he pushes the tone painfully sharp.

The Met production, which dates back to 1971, features cheap semi-realistic sets by Rudolf Heinrich, with traffic direction attributed to John Cox. Although the conductor was supposed to be Michel Plasson, he was replaced without explanation by Jacques Lacombe, principal guest at the Montreal Symphony. For all his promise, the Canadian visitor showed primitive control of the orchestral impulses and limited sympathy for the subtle romantic rhetoric.

Vesselina Kasarova, the dark-toned, assertive Charlotte, couldn't efface memories of her sensitive predecessor, Susan Graham. Christopher Schaldenbrand, the handsome Albert, looked 25, as prescribed by the composer, but tended to sound feeble rather than febrile. The smaller roles were strongly cast, with Lyubov Petrova as a charming Sophie and Paul Plishka as a crusty Bailiff.

The performance, not incidentally, was dedicated to the memory of Franco Corelli, who sang Werther in 1971-72. He was a splendid ultra-Italian tenor, virtually unrivalled as Calaf in Turandot . Ironically, he was hardly idiomatic, and not very comfortable, in the introspective Gallic repertory.

Old at Heart,
Peter G. Davis, New York Metro, 13 January 2004

Roberto Alagna is a forceful tragic hero in the Met's new Werther, which also nods to another tenorthe late, great, very nervous Franco Corelli.

Since it was first seen in 1971, the Metropolitan Opera production of Massenet's Werther has offered a parade of world-class tenors in the title roleeven a baritone a few years ago when Thomas Hampson tried out the composer's arrangement for a lower voice. It's ironic that this opera, which gives the tenor one gorgeous set piece after another before he dies in his beloved Charlotte's arms, now turns up more frequently than any other work by Massenet, once typecast as a narrow specialist in the feminine mystique. Maliciously dubbed Mlle. Wagner by the Parisian bon ton, Massenet did create many fascinating heroinesManon, Thaïs, Cleopatra, Ariane, Cinderella, and the othersbut he ranged much more widely than that.

The Met's current Werther of choice is Roberto Alagna, in many ways an ideal interpreter. His French upbringing automatically gives his approach authenticityverbal nuance is crucial in shaping Massenet's vocal lines correctlywhile everything about his handsome stage presence suggests an unstable, romantic-obsessive young poet headed for suicide. I only wish there was a more liquid flow to Alagna's basically firm, attractive tone, which seems to become thicker and less pliant each time I hear him. It's a problem the tenor might ponder.

Charlotte need not take second place to the hero, and Vesselina Kasarova is a distinctive presence, playing a character who clearly has her own neuroses to deal with as well as a strong attraction to Werther that drives her to distraction. She also puts her rich mezzo-soprano to the most expressive uses, generating an intensity that contrasts nicely with Lyubov Petrova's sunny Sophie and Christopher Schaldenbrand's sullen Albert, all sensitively supported by Jacques Lacombe's attentive musical direction.

Soberbio Alagna en Nueva York
Mario Alegre Barrios, El Nuevo Dia, 17 January 2004

NUEVA YORK- Justamente a las 10:42 de la noche del pasado jueves Roberto Alagna moría de amor como "Werther" en el Metropolitan Opera House.

Una hora más tarde el tenor -de la mano de su esposa Angela- había olvidado a "Charlotte" y despachaba una de las célebres pizzas de Fiorello's, a unos pasos del Lincoln Center, como corolario de una velada en la que, además de encarnar al personaje creado por Goethe e inmortalizado musicalmente por Massenet, conversó con El Nuevo Día como prólogo a su regreso a la Isla.

Aquí se presentará nuevamente el 7 de febrero en un concierto de gala orquestado por Guillermo Martínez para Culturarte, con la colaboración de Opera de Puerto Rico.

Alagna demostró una vez más las razones por las que es considerado como uno de los mejores tenores del orbe, luego de una función realizada ante una sala notablemente concurrida, en especial si consideramos que la ciudad estaba cubierta de nieve y la temperatura había descendido a 1 grado Fahrenheit.

"Aquí sólo estaremos los artistas y dos o tres dementes como público", pensé mientras cruzaba la plaza del célebre centro que alberga el MET. A las 7:25 de la noche la sala estaba ocupada por cientos de "locos" desafiantes al frío que afuera hería la piel como miles de agujas y que me hacía comprender y compadecer a los pobres dinosaurios que se extinguieron hace millones de años por culpa de fríos como éste, que me hicieron extrañar como nunca el distante calor borincano.

Si algo lamenté fue que en la ópera las propinas no existan. La noche era realmente intimidante. Nevada gélida, ventosa... en fin, inmisericorde y la alternativa de los encores hubiera sido genial para quedarse un rato más al abrigo de la sala.

De vuelta al concierto, la velada evidentemente satisfizo a los melómanos con vocación esquimal que constatamos de nueva cuenta la maestría con la que Alagna hace parecer fácil lo que en realidad es endemoniadamente complejo.

El pianissimo del segundo acto fue inmaculado, más aún con el contraste del espectacular agudo con el que el personaje dramatiza el amor imposible que profesa por "Charlotte", recién casada con "Albert", un hombre de talante bastante simplón y que -ni duda cabe- desde niño apuntaba para marido engañado.

Alagna se paseó a su antojo por el alma atormentada de "Werther", joven sitiado entre el acendrado respeto por el que acepta el destino conyugal de "Charlotte" con "Albert", y el amor inmenso que experimenta por ella.

Al final, y ante la obvia imposibilidad de compartir la incandescencia de sus afectos, "Werther" se suicida de una manera un tanto extraña: de un disparo en el centro del vientre y no en el lugar donde nacen las ideas.

Vasselina Kasarova encarnó soberbiamente a "Charlotte" y el legendario Paul Plishka fue el padre de ella. Asimismo, fue un placer escuchar a Lyuvoba Petrova como su hermana "Sofía", mientras que "Albert" fue interpretado por un anodino Cristopher Schaldenbrand.

Son las tres de la madrugada mientras escribo esto y afuera la temperatura ya debe estar bajo cero. Se me congela la piel y el alma. Si sigue así, Kafka me visitará en sueños y amaneceré convertido en pingüino. En la edición de mañana hallará lo que conversamos con Roberto Alagna y su esposa Angela.

New York Chronicle (excerpt)
Jay Nordlinger, The New Criterion, Vol. 22, No. 7, March 2004

[...] Roberto Alagna is seldom given his due, probably
because he is one half of "The Love Couple," a pair whom
critics and other journalists love to mock. (The other half
is his wife, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu.) Alagna has made
a big career for himself, and he deserves one. In certain
roles, he is hardly equaled (I mean, by his peers today). I
think of his Faust, and also of his Nemorino. An Elixir of
Love at the Met-starring both Alagnas-is a highlight of my
memory. It had skill, flair, and musicality. These are not
just personalities, Mr. and Mrs. A. (although what's wrong
with a little personality in the opera?). These are
formidable singers.

And Alagna was indeed formidable in a recent Met Werther.
This Massenet opera can be a sleepy and not quite convincing
affair, but it was alive and engrossing on this occasion.
This was chiefly thanks to the performance of Alagna in the
title role. The voice was radiant. It was lyrical, powerful,
secure. When he's on form, he sings with extraordinary
freedom. He might as well be strolling in the park. There is
nothing uptight about him. And he takes pleasure in his
singing, as well he might. His pleasure allows others to
experience it, too.

I will note a few particulars: In this Werther, Alagna's
technique was such that he could do what he wished with
dynamics. This is outside a singer's control, if he does not
have a handle on his technique. And Alagna showed an uncanny
ability to sing sustained notes evenly-that is, he allowed
no dipping of tone, no wavering of any kind. And even when
his voice was on fire, it retained its creamy loveliness.
Fire and cream: not a bad combination, especially for a
tenor, especially for a tenor in a French role.

And you can attend Werthers for many a moon and not hear a
more effective "Pourquoi me réveiller" (the hit aria of the
opera, and one of the hit arias in all of opera).

More? Alagna proved that he is not merely a
good-enough-for-opera actor. He died a death that most any
actor would be proud of (if I may). Indeed, he rather gave
the Met audience a fright. [...] The first of those Werther
performances was dedicated to Franco Corelli, who had just
died. And it was widely lamented that tenors had simply
vanished with the wind. But Corelli was roundly criticized
in his time, just as Roberto Alagna, come to think of it, is
now. It is only human-and hardly detestable-to exalt the
dead (or retired). But it should be possible to do so
without (stupidly) slighting the living, and active. [...]


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