Lottie in Wetzlar
OPERA JOHN HIGGINS
It was in Wetzlar, in 1772, that Goethe first met Charlotte Buff and fell half in love with her while still reserving a good deal of affec- tion for himself and his own romantic image. Wetzlar was also the setting for The Sorrows of Young Werther, published two years later, in which Goethe scarcely bothered to disguise the people he walked and talked with that summer—Charlotte even keeps her own name.
Henry Bardon's sets for the Glyndebourne Werther, which opened the season on Sunday, snap up the very essence of Central Germ-an provincial life. The tall, gabled houses, ochre in the sunset, lean over a stream which might very well guard those ecrevisses celebrated in Act 1—or were they a wishful French touch by Massenet's trio of librettists? The two town topers, Johann and Schmidt, guzzle ?way the morning service in the sunshine at the Raisin d'Or, not, alas, listed under Wetzlar in the 1969 Michelin—the Wetzlarer Hof and the Euler- Haus take pride of place, although the Lotte- ham receives a star and is considered sehenswert. -The more respectable burghers, excellently attired by David Walker, promenade under the market arcades in their Sunday finery; Charlotte herself has a dress quite close to the 'white frock trimmed with pink bows' worn by Goethe's own Lotte at the ball where he first saw her.
It was attention to such details that made Werther so impressive to look at when we first saw it three seasons back. Detail, too, is what marks Michael Redgrave's production, and happily he is back to direct this revival with the same care he devoted to the original. As night falls in Act 1, and the clair de lune theme swells up from the orchestra, Werther searches for the only strut of the balcony free of roses and creepers and clutches it impul- sively as Charlotte (who is much of a prig and something of a tease in these first two acts) turns away into the house. The same automatic gesture of grasping at the nearest solid object comes with his return to Albert's house six months later: a marvellous moment this as the door is thrown open at the back of the stage and a patch of light picks out Werther's pale face and a white cuff in the darkness.
Redgrave, Bardon and Walker all have com- plete faith in Werther, which is not altogether easy at a time when Massenet is a little short of both friends and supporters. So, too, has Jean Brazzi, back to sing the title ,role.
Brazzi has the face of the tortured poet. The black ringlets set across the forehead, the deep eyes, the beaky nose forever sniffing out some new lacerating personal experience fit him superbly for the large gestures of French romantic opera. And he has never ducked im- passioned effects. The melodramatic cry at the end of Act 1—`Un autre, son epoux!'—was delivered with total conviction and no hint of embarrassment; the same went for the Act 3 return, which finds MM Blau, Milliet and Hart- mann at their most bathetic: 'Oui, c'est moi! . . . je reviens.' Brazzi can get away with that sort of line because of the intensity and lack of inhibition in his acting.
Vocally he can be an uncertain performer and he is rarely at his best on first nights. Sun- day found him short of tone and strained at the top: Ve ne sais si je veille . . .' was awk- ward and too full of effort, less good than it was three years ago and lacking the full, forward flow that a singer like Luccioni brought to it on record. But then in the next act 'Un autre est son epoux' and, later, `Lorsque l'en- fant revient' had all the feeling and grace of line that he can command; the Ossian song, which as `Ah non mi ridestar' generations of Italian tenors have turned into a lullaby instead of an outburst of emotion—and one of the very few in the opera delivered face to •face —was superb. At Wexford two seasons ago Brazzi's final Romeo was far better than the ones earlier in the week; those seeing the later Werthers at Glyndebourne may well find an outstanding interpretation.
Werther is very much a tenor's opera and I am surprised to find Josephine Veasey listing Charlotte as one of her favourite -roles. Miss Veasey has sung the part in Europe and else- where before, but not in England. The inter-
pretation is superficially as fluent as the voice: Charlotte changes abruptly at half-time from a prim little miss into a romantic heroine. Both characters are caught in turn, but despite the glowing voice used for the Air des larmes and the last act duet, they were not fused into a single person. The fault, I suspect, is not Miss Veasey's. - The dependence of Werther on its pro- tagonist can be seen from the relative lack of interest generated by the other characters, even when they are strongly cast as in this re- vival. Peter Gottlieb is suitably stolid as Albert, Charlotte's chosen (or rather chosen for her), but he might vary his tone a little more. Richard Van Allan and Hugues Guenod articulate drolly and clearly as two unusually gaunt boozers—ah, the German Tourist Board will say, not an ounce of extra flesh when you drink good Hesse wine. Stafford Dean is the gruff but friendly Bailli. Only the insufferable Sophie, professionally chipper at every moment of personal grief, is weakly sung—Sadler's Wells had the right idea in their 1952 produc- tion when Marion Studholme took the part.
Myer Fredman did not coax the same lush- ness from the orchestra as in the performance I heard Carlo Felice Cillario conduct in 1966, but opted instead for a dramatic approach. The sounds from the pit were' not always sweet but they were usually stirring. Last time Werther
took some while to get going and in a few performances' time this could well be an out- standing revival; the next evening it was fol- lowed by an expertly balanced Cosi, which I hope to discuss next week. So Glyndebourne has got off to its best start in several, years.
There is an excellent revival, too, at Covent Garden of Peter Grimes. The timing should not surprise students of Royal Opera House form which, over the past two or three years, has been very close to that of certain racing stables—Captain Threadneedle will tell you their names—who can be relied on to start pro- ducing winners two thirds of the way through the season. The spring months tend to be the successful ones at Bow Street and recently we've had the Jones/ McCracken/ Glossop Otello, the Klemperer/ Silja Fidelio, the Soltil Nilsson , Elektra which Charles Reid was describing here a couple of weeks back, and now the finest-- sounding Peter Grimes I've heard in WC2.
Much of the strength of the performance - comes from the orchestra and chorus, and since Colin Davis, musical director-elect, was in the pit the omens are encouraging. The tug of the sea runs through this revival, as it must through any decent staging of Grimes. There is the feeling of sea calm and of sea turbulent. of sea seductive and of sea deceptive, and finally, in the last scene, of the sea claiming its own. There is the same remarkable identifica- tion with the work by the chorus—remarkah!,: because they have not sung in the opera for seven years—who appear wrapped up in their own tiny world, distrusting and resenting any- one who does not conform to type.
Jon Vickers has sung Grimes at the Met with Colin Davis, but neither has appeared in the opera here before. It is a racked and de- liberately craggy interpretation, physically anJ vocally much larger than Peter Pears's. The powerful body of this odd man out can with- stand just so many blows and then it will jus. give up. Vickers, with a little connivance from the pit, takes some liberties with the vocal line notes are drawn out or punched harder than usual, `Now the Great Bear and Pleiades lacked its top notes. But the reward is the image, which will stay for some time, of :1 strong man being crushed by general opinion.
This revival is cast right down the line at strength, from Geraint Evans's Players Medium Navy Cut Captain Balstrode and Heather Har- per's sweetly sung Ellen Orford to Auntie's two teasing nieces (Elizabeth Robson and Josephine Barstow). It is not to be missed.