Werther, Tokyo, February 2002

Sabbatini plays 'Werther' with tragic competence
Yukiko Kishinami,The Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri, 28 February 2002

Werther New National Theatre Tokyo, Feb. 24

Massenet's Werther, based on a Goethe novella, belongs to a league of
operas that, despite their familiar plots and beautiful scores, are
rarely performed simply because of the unavailability of singers who can
sing the title role competently.

New National Theatre Tokyo's first-ever production of the opera, which
opened last week, enjoys the luxury of having Giuseppe Sabbatini play
the poet Werther, a hallmark figure of the Romantic era who was
tormented by an unfulfilled love that eventually led to his demise.

The German version of the four-act opera premiered in Vienna in 1892,
one year before the original French version was staged in Paris.

The story is set in about 1780 in Frankfurt. The children of the city's
magistrate are rehearsing a Christmas carol at home in the midst of
summer. Having lost their mother, the children are cared for by their
eldest sister, Charlotte, who is engaged to Albert, as stipulated in her
mother's will.

While Albert is away on business, Werther is asked to escort Charlotte
to a ball. He falls in love with her at first sight, and she also
develops feelings for him. But Werther is deeply disappointed to learn
that she is betrothed.

Werther cannot forget Charlotte, even after she and Albert marry.
Meanwhile, Albert is aware Werther and his wife are attracted to each
other. However, when Werther visits Charlotte on Christmas to declare
his love for her, she rejects him. Upon leaving, Werther leaves a note
for the couple asking to borrow their collection of pistols. Albert
finds the note, and sends the firearms to Werther's home. When Charlotte
discovers what has happened, she frantically rushes to Werther's home,
only to find him dying, having shot himself.

Massenet's music is filled with dramatic tension and beautiful,
easy-to-follow melodies, which, depending on the way it is performed, at
times can end up sounding like an old-fashioned, cheap film soundtrack.
In the pit, Alain Guingall, the sole Frenchman in the production,
conducted the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra with flowing movement,
emphasizing each nuance with a body language that the strings responded
to well.

Director Alberto Fassini, who has become a familiar name among Japanese
opera fans, has created an audience-friendly production, which is
appropriate in light of the fact that the opera is rarely performed in
Japan. The singers' dispositions are thoughtfully developed: Werther and
Charlotte do not so much as look at each other from the moment they hear
Albert coming home in Act I, and Charlotte, Albert and Sophie,
Charlotte's vibrant younger sister, turn away from festivities in the
city to celebrate the pastor's golden wedding anniversary to anxiously
look in the direction of Werther's exit.

Vocally, the production is one of the season's gems. Sabbatini, who is
probably at the prime of his singing career at 45, started off perhaps a
little stiff at the Sunday performance, yet his vocal mastery became
apparent soon after. The Italian tenor's voice carries a different
emotion for each scene--sweetness when Werther falls in love with
Charlotte, bitterness when he learns the girl is betrothed and passion
as he pours out his feelings for her.

Making her debut at the venue was Anna Caterina Antonacci as Charlotte,
whose elegant presence and rich soprano make her an ideal Charlotte, who
is chaste as well as maternal.

Baritone Natale de Carolis, who has played a memorable Don Giovanni and
Lescault at the venue, created a convincing Albert, whose patience and
love for his wife make the story all the more tragic.

As Sophie, Akiko Nakajima made an impressive debut at the theater. The
Vienna Volksoper member effortlessly brought together singing and acting
with a spontaneity lacking in many Japanese opera singers. Her light,
silvery soprano offered a fine contrast to Antonacci's bright voice.

Schmidt and Johann, the magistrate's jolly, drunkard friends, are
confidently sung by tenor Satoshi Chubachi and baritone Yuichi
Toyoshima, respectively, and their ebullient duet in Act II offers comic
relief in the serious drama. Bass Masumi Kubota makes a fine magistrate,
although on the whole, there is room for improvement with regard to the
Japanese singers' French diction.

The children, who sing the Christmas carol that is central to the story,
are all played by girls. Unfortunately, the ethereal quality often
expected from children's church choirs was absent when the carol is sung
off stage as Werther kills himself.

Another disappointment was William Orlandi's two-dimensional set.
Despite beautiful backgrounds, staircases and balustrades were placed
without consideration to perspective, resulting in a flatness that opera
fans, increasingly exposed to complex and effective set designs, may
have found unsatisfactory.

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