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Judith Malafronte
Opera News, March 2009

Robert Tannenbaum’s production of Massenet’s Werther for the Karlsruhe Opera House in 2007 uses a spare, modern-dress idiom to highlight the alienation and bleak isolation of the poet Werther and Charlotte, the married woman he loves. The orchestra, under the capable and often inspired baton of Daniel Carlberg, excels in the delicate, sparse moments while leaving the more sweeping and luxuriant lines somewhat dry.

The opening tableau, mimed during the orchestral prelude, reveals a bare, snowy park and a lonely telephone pole by a graveside, where a priest is just finishing up a burial. The events of the opera are a flashback of Charlotte’s life, as she rejects Werther’s passionate love, marries the businessman her parents chose and descends into religious fervor and madness, reciting Werther’s love letters to herself in a filthy, abandoned room dominated by a statue of the Virgin Mary as Mater Dolorosa (with swords and bleeding heart).

While it lacks the romantic heat of more traditional productions, Tannenbaum’s concept works theatrically, largely due to the committed performance of Silvia Hablowetz as Charlotte. Unfortunately, tenor Keith Ikaia-Purdy has neither the command of French nor enough control of his large, stiff voice to do justice to the role of Werther. He yells through “O nature,” cannot manage the swift “J’aurais sur ma poitrine” and labors through “Pourquoi me réveiller” without expression.

Christian Floeren’s shabby, stylized 1960s sets make the bailiff’s living room a dollhouse with garish wallpaper, where the children loll about on the floor, bored, while the bailiff just wants to have a beer and watch some TV. Tero Hannula brings an endearing Homer Simpson quality to this simple countryman, while Andreas Heideker and Mika Kares, as the drunken Schmidt and Johann, are a fine comic duo. Sophie is a sullen teenager in leg braces and crutches who lurks in dark corners and observes everything with a critical eye. The winning Ina Schlingensiepen boasts a beautiful, cultivated voice and an expressive face that makes Sophie both innocent and terrifying.

Armin Kolarczyk is suitably rigid as Charlotte’s uncomprehending husband, Albert. Kudos also to the children’s chorus of the Helmholtz-Gymnasium.

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