Dear friends and readers,
As Izzy wrote, what is most remarkable in retrospect about today’s HD-broadcast of Massenet’s Werther starring the heart-stoppingly handsome, brilliant actor and powerful tenor (he can do light to Wagner opera), Jonas Kaufmann, is it brought home we were watching and listening to it alongside a global community.
Until the middle of Act II (after the single long intermission), the production had felt tepid. Izzy fell asleep. People yawned. No one applauded at any of the turns. As is too frequent with the Met since it instituted its HD transmissions, this was a new but utterly conventional pedestrian interpretation, designed not to offend, to please the eye. The first act all pastoral frozen-smiling gaiety, with Werther providing the only alienated note and not very convincingly against the stilted others. It was Werther seen through the eyes of Austen’s Love and Freindship: how foolish and self-indulgent can you get. If you don’t watch out, your ridiculousness will leave you dead in an over-turned carriage in the wet mud if not in jail for stealing your well-intentioned parent’s money.
Then we were in the second act, and a number of 18th century motifs were visually dramatized. There was Charlotte (Sophie Koch) in her nightgown and robe, reading her letters obsessively. At her writing desk. Pistols in a case. A couple of months after marriage, and she seemed devastated by her loss of this man who wrote these letters. What Sophie feared most is precisely what she cannot live without, the kind of passions she is intensely drawn to and in her deepest emotional life acts out.
Suddenly the door opens and there he is, she falls and he captures her in his arms:
and the music and their singing and acting swept me into the wretched grief of irreparable loss. I had never heard “Pourquoi me reveiller” (why wake me up, ever?) in context. He sang it so beautifully, his expression so unashamedly plangent, I thought of all the nights I have laid there wishing I would never wake up again.
Paris, production the whole number:
New York City, a shorter version:
But let us not be metaphysical or abstract or talk of philosophical interpretations of reality. What if your beloved died? the person who made life worth living. Mine has. And night after night I wish my heart would stop. I sleep in his spot in the bed because I cannot bear that he should not be there. Event after event has occurred which makes my existence a hardship punctuated by harassment. No one to understand, no one to empathize, no one to live within my experience with me. I wish I could want to be dead. With death all that I endure would stop. My problem is I don’t want to die. Why did he let that criminal doctor do what he pleased and then let death happen to him so rapidly?
I began to sob uncontrollably, it was beyond me.
It did not matter in the least that half Goethe’s novel had been omitted by Massenet: in the novel Werther despairs also because he has this godawful job at court, required to be an utter sycophant, he cannot stand the phony socially dysfunctional life (in any real sense) in salons. Everyone out for what he or she can get. In the original Charlotte has married coolly for money and status. He makes a mistake to come to Charlotte for comfort. Nor did it matter that I know in the novel when he arrives, she is indifferent; she, as Thackeray put it, carried on cutting bread and butter. This was not a novel about sex and death as the two production people (Richard Eyre and Rob Howell) told Gelb during the filmed interview even if Massenet’s music corresponded to wild wallowings of lyrical grace. It’s a critique of how society is organized of social life. When it moves into the last sequence of suicide, it’s about loss, grief, misery unending, unbearable, lonelines; that’s the text of the novel. In this opera most is omitted and what is there is changed and the close where Charlotte understands and loves back is an enactment of how one escapes through death if the beloved person is there with you to understand.
So Werther races out of the room and she to her bedroom behind a door. Her husband, Albert (David Bizic) comes in and reading one of these letters, Alberts jealousy prompts him to knock on her door and tell her to send Werther the pistols. She does, but directly afterward regrets it, and then at the back of the stage (much movie technique) we see his room, Charlotte puts on her robe and rushes off to stop Werther from killing himself:
We are then in this room as it takes over the screen. (It reminded me of the way Edward Ferrars’s room in the 1971 S&S was presented — with Robin Ellis as the brooding hero — Marianne is a Werther figure.) The pistols arrive. Werther first tries to shoot himself through the brain. Cannot. Then he tries his chest and does it. He falls and blood all over the place. She now bursts in, they begin to sing and I lost it again. He sung how happy he was to die, and I felt this. For me it would not be that as my beloved is now dead so I cannot die in his arms and not have these last moments. That made me cry all the more. I thought of oblivion as their voices soared.
Then silence. No more sound. The subtitles were there with the words telling the same tale, but the thrill was off. In a way like a silent film. My tears were still down my face as I read the words, but the spell was broken. In the movie-theater I was in, it took a full 3-4 minutes before anyone seemed to get up to go out to the lobby to complain. I heard towards the end of this silence voices from the screen very faint: Izzy was looking at her cell phone, showing me tweets by people complaining they had lost sound. We could not tell if they were in our theater or where they were. One was from a theater in NYC. She now says someone in the audience had a cell phone and was able to reach the sound through a radio station but it was out of sync — for we did hear ever so faintly the voices singing, the music. I lost patience and irritated got up and walked out to find someone to be told that someone was upstairs fixing it, and as she said that, the sound returned. But the opera was over and we were at the applause.
At first I thought it local and felt so angry at myself and others for not rushing out and demanding the sound be put back earlier, but as we walked out two managers were there explaining that the satellite feed had stopped sending sound. Anyone who had a stub for their ticket was welcome to return to the repeat playing of the film on the coming Wednesday night. For me it wasn’t worth it. I did feel the opera production did not come alive until the two central protagonists broke out against all rational embarrassed refusals to recognize someone can feel this way and act upon it. I will be away on Wednesday night anyway.
At home, with the Internet available, Izzy quickly ascertained that the interruption had occurred across the US. For her it was an experience proving to us we are indeed part of a community of listeners and watchers across hundreds and thousands of miles. For me I though of how I Capuletti e i Montecchi came live at the close as the two lovers wake and die together, how in Rusalka what’s worth listening to, is the final scene of the prince’s death in Rusalka’s arms and how she then dives deep into the lake never to come out again. I bought myself a ticket to see the Met La Boheme on April 5th so I may find some release again.
Do you know what I am? how I live? What it is to lose and keep losing.
Care-charmer Sleep, son of the sable Night,
Brother to Death, in silent darkness born,
Relieve my languish, and restore the light;
With dark forgetting of my care return.
And let the day be time enough to mourn
The shipwreck of my ill adventured youth:
Let waking eyes suffice to wail their scorn,
Without the torment of the night’s untruth.
Cease, dreams, the images of day-desires,
To model forth the passions of the morrow;
Never let rising Sun approve you liars
To add more grief to aggravate my sorrow:
Still let me sleep, embracing clouds in vain,
And never wake to feel the day’s disdain.
– Samuel Daniels