The Metropolitan Opera has revived Massenet’s Werther in the virtually unknown version that the composer prepared in 1902 for the celebrated Italian baritone Mattia Battistini. The original, of course, was written for a tenor, and anyone familiar with the opera is bound to be disconcerted by the alteration of the long-suffering hero’s vocal line, readjusted to accommodate a baritone’s lower range. The change succeeded only in ironing out the expressive contours of the original and emasculating what was a highly effective musical study of an unstable personality. Some profess to hear a more subtly introspective reimagining of the role, but to my ears the opera is fatally neutered, and Werther himself – surely the Romantic embodiment of irrational, self-destructive passion – loses all credibility.
Perhaps a singer of Battistini’s fabled vocal gifts and personal charisma could make something of the part. For all his intelligence and vocal skill, Thomas Hampson is simply not in Battistini’s league, either as a technician or as a box-office draw, and he is mostly caught in a no-win situation. His baritone has its customary burnished allure, and he takes great care over the words (crucial in singing Massenet). But whenever the temperature rises, his voice simply vanishes into the rich orchestral textures, despite conductor Donald Runnicles’s sensitive attempts to maintain a proper balance. No wonder Susan Graham’s Charlotte and Christopher Robertson’s Albert never amount to much, since the object of their concern scarcely seems to be present. It was enterprising of the Met to try out this experimental alternate Werther. Now that we know it doesn’t work, the score can be shelved and we can return to the wonderful opera Massenet really wrote.