Massenet’s Werther in Brussels

In Brussels I saw the same opera two nights in a row in two different versions. The first night the title role was sung by a baritone, Ludovic Tézier, and the next night the same role was sung by a tenor, Andrew Richards. This is highly unusual, because usually a composer decides on one kind of voice and that’s the way it is.

In this case, though, composer Jules Massenet (1842-1912) originally wrote his opera Werther for a tenor, but later went through and made the necessary changes so it could be sung by a baritone.

Applause at the end of Massenet’s Werther

The man in the blood-stained white shirt in this photo is the American tenor Andrew Richards. On his left is the French soprano Sophie Koch, and on his right the orchestra conductor Kuzushi Ono and the stage director Guy Joosten, who came up with an ingenious and convincing interpretation that was fully consistent with the text and the music.

The staging was the same on both evenings, and the changes in the score are actually quite minimal from one version to the next, but I found it did make a difference to have the title role sung by a deeper voice the first night. The baritone seemed more like a brooding romantic hero, whereas the tenor came across as a timeless tortured soul. Though that could also have to do with the personalities of the two singers, as well as with the level of their voices.

Werther is an opera I had seen previously, in different productions, in Darmstadt, Würzburg, Freiburg in Breisgau and Frankfurt am Main. It is based on the German novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), about a young man who kills himself because he is in love with an unattainable young woman.

By the way, Massenet’s opera Werther is in French, so the name is usually pronounced the French way, with an elongated second syllable, whereas Goethe’s novel is in German, so the name Werther is pronounced the German way, with the stress on the first syllable and a shorter second syllable.

In the Brussels Opera House

The Brussels Opera has been an exciting place since the 1980s, when it was run by one of Europe’s outstanding opera administrators, Gérard Mortier (1943-2014), who later went on to run the Salzburg Festival, where he was constantly at odds with conservative opera fans and local politicians. He was later the head of the Opéra National de Paris, meaning that he was in charge of two of the Paris opera houses, namely the Opéra Bastille and the Palais Garnier.

Another outstanding opera administrator, Bernd Loebe, was Artistic Director of the Brussels Opera throughout the 1990s. After leaving Brussels he returned to his home city of Frankfurt am Main, where he became the General Director (Intendant) of the Frankfurt Opera starting in 2002.

Curtains for “Curtain”

When I arrived in Brussels in December 2007, I went to the opera house and was surprised to see that there were torn shreds of soggy red cloth hanging from the façade in front of the pillars.

It turned out that this was the 21st stop on the Agorafolly Art Walk or Young Artists Trail, a feature of the europalia.europa arts festival in which young artists from various European countries had been asked “to bring 27 squares and market places in the heart of Brussels to life” by creating temporary works of art of various sorts. This one was by two young Polish artists, Alicja Karska and Aleksandra Went, and was called “Curtain”.

Unfortunately Western Europe had been hit by a fairly severe rainstorm the night before. In Frankfurt this meant that I got soaked to the skin while riding home on my bike from the Old Opera House (which was fun; I need that sort of thing once a month or so), and in Brussels it meant that the attractive red curtain on the outside of the opera house was lashed about and ripped up by the wind and drenched by the torrential rainfall.

The next day the curtains were gone, but it turned out that the red dye had rubbed off onto the white classical pillars at the front of the opera house. A man on a hydraulic ramp spent several hours scrubbing the pillars, using ordinary bathroom spray and a rag, until all the red stains were finally gone.

Two names: La Monnaie / De Munt

Like everything else in Brussels, the opera house has two names: Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in French and Koninklijke Muntschouwburg in Dutch. Both mean “The Royal Theatre of the Mint” because this was where coins used to be minted in earlier centuries.

Before each opera performance they have introductory talks on two different floors, one in French and one in Dutch. Having heard both of these talks about Massenet’s Werther on two different evenings, I can say that the one in French was very good — and I’m sure the Dutch version was, too, even though I don’t understand much of that language.

During the first half of the performance there were surtitles in French above the left side of the stage, and in Dutch above the right side. After the intermission this was reversed, so nobody could claim one language was being more prominently displayed than the other.

Seating in the Brussels Opera House

This opera house was given a thorough overhaul in the 1980s, and again from 2015 to 2017. In the 1980s they stabilized the foundations, ripped out the old stage area and put in an entirely new one, and raised the level of the ceiling by about four meters. The auditorium, however, was left in its original style from the year 1855, except that a new higher level of inexpensive seating was added at the top of the house.

Seating in the highest section

This upper section did not exist in the original 1855 building, but was added in the 1980s when the height of the building was raised by four meters. These seats are quite high up, but from here you get a complete view of the stage, which is not true of a lot of the (more expensive) side balcony seats.

Crashing the sponsor’s party / Catering tent

Many local, regional and national governments in Europe still provide generous subsidies to cultural institutions, including of course the opera houses. But since costs are going up and the subsidies are at best remaining stable, opera houses all over Europe are increasingly trying to attract sponsors to help pay some of their costs.

In 2007 one of the biggest sponsors of the Brussels opera was Fortis, an international banking and insurance company. They bought up two entire performances of Massenet’s Werther in that season, and in addition there was a large Fortis reception for several hundred of their guests after one of the performances I attended.

Little did they know, at the time, that the global financial crisis of 2008 would soon crush the once-proud Fortis company. To avoid bankruptcy it was taken over by the Belgian government, with the intention of selling 75% of Fortis Belgium to the French bank BNP Paribas. So I don’t suppose Fortis will be throwing any more huge parties like the one I crashed in 2007 at the Brussels opera house.

When the opera house was built in the 19th century — and when it was remodeled in the 1980s — no provision was made for catering big parties, so for this party a tent was set up on the left side of the opera house. Here in the cold winter night the catering people prepared hundreds of open-face sandwiches and desserts.

A homeless man and his dog at the opera

In Brussels there are said to be at least 1500 homeless people. I noticed this one particularly because he was sleeping at the front entrance of the opera house, perhaps one meter to the right of the front door, just as opera goers were starting to arrive for the premiere of Massenet’s Werther.

That sleeping bag looks very thin for a cold December night, and those flimsy pieces of cardboard underneath are certainly not providing much insulation. His belongings are in a couple of backpacks and a plastic shopping bag by his head, and his dog is curled up on a jacket beside him.

Some other night you might conceivably find this same man sitting next to you in the opera house, because the Brussels opera has a program called Un Pont entre Deux Mondes / Een brug tussen twee werelden, meaning “A bridge between two worlds”. The main aim of this program is “to make culture, music and opera accessible to an underprivileged public.”

Among other partners, they work together with an organization called Jamais Sans Toit (JST), meaning “Never Without a Roof”, which tries to “fill the gap between the rich and the poor people” and let the poor “be a part of society, by letting them go to concerts and museums” — and to the opera, where they get (free) places in the front rows or on the first balcony, among the other visitors.

In the Brussels Opera House

My photos in this post are from 2007. I revised the text in 2018.

For the baritone Ludovic Tézier, see Concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
For the tenor Andrew Richards, see Operas at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

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