Casadesus’ Great “Werther”

Naxos cover

MASSENET: Werther / Marcus Haddock, tenor (Werther); Béatrice Uria-Monzon, mezzo (Charlotte); René Massis, baritone (Albert); Jaël Azzaretti, soprano (Sophie0; Jean-Philippe Marlière, baritone (Bailiff); Jean’Sébastien Bou, baritone (Johann); Jean Delescluse, tenor (Schmidt); Maîtrise Boréale Children;s Chorus; Orchestre National de Lille; Jean-Claude Casedesus, conductor / Naxos 8,66072/73 (live: Lille, June 19-25, 1999)

Little by little I run across these gems from the past that I unfortunately missed when they were originally issued because I had to work for a living and not sit and listen to recordings most of the time, which I now do in retirement.

Previous to my discovering this set, my favorite recording of Werther was an Italian-language recording an acquaintance of mine sent me with soprano Leyla Gencer as Charlotte, tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini as Werther, Giuliana Tavolaccini as Sophie and Mario Borriello as Albert, conducted by Carlo Felice Cellario, and the reasons I preferred it to all others I’d heard (going as far back as Elie Cohen’s 1931 recording with Ninon Vallin and Georges Thill) was that the Charlotte (Gencer) really sounded engaged and dramatic, all of the supporting singers were excellent (not always the case in recordings and performances of this opera), and—perhaps most important of all—the conducting was taut and linear, not over-Romantic and gooshy as is so often the case (check out Michel Plasson’s, Antonio Pappano’s and even Georges Prêtre’s recordings if you do’t believe me), and to me this was a crucial factor because Werther can so easily turn into bathos and thus completely ruin the opera, which has several weak moments along with the very good ones.

But this recording really surprised me because American tenor Marcus Haddock, in the title role, sang with just the right combination of lyric effusion and neurotic edginess in the character. Werther is not an easy role to perform; you can’t just sound conventionally dramatic in it. You have to sound as if you’re suppressing a nervous explosion just under the skin, and that’s not easy to do. Even Rolando Villazón, who has had his own real-life bouts with nervousness and depression, did not fully bring out the character in either his 2009 live performance with Susan Graham as Charlotte (superbly conducted by Kent Nagano) or his 2014 studio recording with Pappano and soprano Sophie Koch. Haddock, a tenor I’d never heard before, combined, for me, the best qualities of a singing actor with a really beautiful voice, something that Georges Thill, Alfredo Kraus or Placido Domingo never had.

In fact, the only slight disappointment I found in this set was the children’s chorus, which sounds rather matter-of-fact and not up to the energy of the children singing in the Nagano and Pappano performances. That’s it. Otherwise, this is a linear, no-nonsense Werther that has just the right combination of beautiful singing and dramatic commitment.

Uria-Monzon & Haddock

Uria-Monzon & Haddock in early 2009

Along with Haddock, the star of this show is mezzo Béatrice Uria-Monzon as Charlotte. It took me a while to figure out who her voice reminded me of, but I finally came up with the name: Tatiana Troyanos. She has the same kind of voice, a good-sized mezzo with both a ringing top and a rich, full bottom, a fast vibrato that is prominent but never out of control, not even when he attacks her forte high notes, and the same kind of emotional commitment to the character she is portraying. The only difference is that her voice has more of a French timbre than Troyanos’, which is to say a little drier and not as fruity-sounding, but it is clearly a good quality instrument, well under control at all times.

The microphone balance is a little odd, however, favoring the voices over the orchestra, which always sounds a bit receded in the soundspace. This may upset more listeners more than it did me although I certainly would have appreciated a little more “bite” from the strings and winds than I hear on this recording. Yet, as I say, Casadesus’ firm grasp of the score keeps things moving, and in a sense the de-emphasis on the orchestra brings out the chamber music quality of the writing. Even more so than Manon, Werther is Massenet’s most intimate opera; his focus is on the emotional development of the characters, thus everything in the score is geared towards backing the singers without covering them. Even in the slow, soft passages, Casadesus never lingers so much that you start to feel your skin crawl and an urge to yell, “Move it, for God’s sake!”

No matter where you turn in this remarkable recording, the drama feels alive and real. And I tell you what: for live performances, the audience is as quiet as churchmice. You not only never hear a cough of a sniffle, you don’t even hear anyone breathing, and the singers are always miked clearly and properly. If it wasn’t for the applause at the end, I’d have had a hard time believing that this was a live stage performance, and that’s meant as a very high compliment.

Sadly, some of the singers in this recording are no longer performing. Tenor Marcus Haddock’s career seemed on the rise after making his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2003, but shortly after singing Don José in Carmen (with Uria-Monzon) at the Houston Grand Opera in early 2009, he suffered two massive strokes in 24 hours which so damaged his system that he had to stop singing. Baritone René Massis, who was one of the oldest members of this cast, has since retired to teaching voice. Béatrice Uria-Mozon is still singing, and in fact moved up to the soprano range in 2012 with a performance of Tosca, yet still somehow fails to hit the big time internationally. (There’s a very good video Carmen with her on YouTube from the 1990s, disappointing only in the underpowered final scene.) But this Werther stands as a superb moment in time when all of them came together to produce, on balance, the finest performance of this opera yet committed to discs.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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