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 Recording of the Week, Jules Massenet - Werther & Don Quichotte

This year sees the centenary of the death of one of my favourite French composers, Jules Massenet (1842-1912). A prolific writer for the stage with a supreme gift for memorable melodies and lush orchestration, Massenet is best known today for the beautiful ‘Meditation’ from his Egyptian opera Thais, though his thirty-odd operas were immensely popular during his lifetime and have been enjoying something of a renaissance over the past few years.

To mark the anniversary, I’ve been enjoying two very different sets this week – one a star-studded new recording of one of his most frequently-performed tragedies, Werther, the other the lesser-known autumnal comedy Don Quichotte – from Gergiev’s team of house-singers (plus one special guest) at the Mariinsky.

Rolando Villazón & Sophie Koch
Rolando Villazón & Sophie Koch

First up then is DG’s Werther, recorded live last May at the Royal Opera House. I was lucky enough to be at one of the performances, and on the evidence of this new set, my verdict’s much the same as it was in the bar afterwards. Much of the hype surrounding the run (and by extension this release) centred around Rolando Villazón: after a series of high-profile cancellations, a sabbatical from opera for health reasons and controversial forays into baroque opera and reality TV, speculation was rife as to whether the combustible Mexican tenor still possessed the sang froid, technique and sheer stamina to cut it as one of the tortured young poets for which he was once famed.

As comebacks go, it’s not quite an unqualified success – there’s a graininess of tone which won’t please all ears, occasional constriction and some off-centre intonation – but for the most part the moments of wildness and vocal fragility work beautifully in the service of this most unstable of characters. Sophie Koch’s elegantly-sung, restrained Charlotte, shatteringly expressive when her guard eventually drops in the letter-scene, is an ideal foil for Villazón’s volatile hero: in this instance it seems that opposites really do attract!

A third star performance comes from the pit; when I put the CD on, I was pinned back by the verismo-like drama at the searingly gloomy opening, and my first thought was that I’d never heard Massenet’s most Puccini-esque score sound more visceral and Italianate. I was a good way into the first scene when I remembered it was Pappano at the helm, and though he never runs roughshod over the elusively French qualities of the music, it’s some of the most red-blooded Massenet you’ll hear on disc.

Ferruccio Furlanetto
Ferruccio Furlanetto

After wallowing in so much glorious melancholy, I found the Mariinsky’s vivid Don Quichotte to be the perfect antidote. Massenet’s late comedy follows Cervantes’ ‘knight of the doleful countenance’ on his final chivalrous quest with a mixture of swashbuckling set-pieces and tender lyricism as he falls in love with the Carmen-like Dulcinée, sword-fights with windmills (!), wins over brigands and finally expires of a broken heart, all in the company of his faithful retainer Sancho Panza (sung with punchy comic timing and simple eloquence by Andrei Serov).

Gergiev imported the veteran Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto to sing the eponymous knight, and he does so with precisely the right mixture of pathos and whimsical elegance: his understated death-scene touched me every bit as much as the high-octane expiration of Villazon’s Werther. Anna Kiknadze’s dusky, coppery mezzo is the perfect instrument for the voluptuous yet melancholy Dulcinée, and she tosses off the cod-Spanish roulades and flourishes with an aplomb that reflects her background in zarzuela. True, there’s some slightly mushy French from most of the principals but there’s so much chutzpah in the singing and playing (particularly in the roistering, flamenco-style crowd scenes) that it hardly matters.

So, whether tragedy or comedy takes your fancy this week, do take the time to sample one of these sets from the pen of a composer who was a dab hand at both!

Massenet: Werther

Rolando Villazón (Werther), Sophie Koch (Charlotte), Audun Iversen (Albert), Eri Nakamura (Sophie), Alain Vernhes (Le Bailli), Stuart Patterson (Schmidt), Darren Jeffrey (Johann), Anna Devin (Käthchen), Zhengzhong Zhou (Brühlmann), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Massenet: Don Quichotte

Ferruccio Furlanetto (Don Quichotte), Anna Kiknadze (Dulcinée) & Andrei Serov (Sancho Panza), Mariinsky Academy of Young Singers Ensemble & Mariinsky Orchestra & Soloists, Valery Gergiev

Available Formats: 2 SACDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC