Benoît Jacquot's stodgy, bargain-basement Werther — introduced at Covent Garden in 2004 but filmed at the Opéra Bastille in January 2010 — lacks flair as sorely as it does good, old-fashioned production values. A messy blue cyclorama, a steeply raked floor, a high wall that is placed diagonally and broken by a barn door: that's Act I. Same cyclorama, a low wall placed on the other diagonal: that's Act II. Act III, which takes place indoors, opens in a big, empty hall and ends in a sparsely furnished bedchamber. The windows are frosted. Some snow falls.
The video direction, by Jacquot and Louise Narboni, offers frequent distractions. Wandering into the wings, the camera catches cast members limbering up or scurrying into position. Soaring to the flies, it punctuates the action with occasional bird's-eye views. From time to time, a lone soloist is seen in long shot, poised at the footlights as if fixing to leap from a cliff into the churning sea, which is to say the visible orchestra pit. Ah, the Alienation Effect! If the Brechtian mishmash of conventional screen narrative and documentary clichés calls to mind the recent movie-house Tosca (which intercut footage of Angela Gheorghiu on the set and in the recording studio), it ought to: that one was a Jacquot special, too.
But thanks to Jonas Kaufmann in the hero's signature blue coat and yellow waistcoat, the dark-eyed Sophie Koch as the tormented Charlotte, and Michel Plasson in the pit, this Werther comes up trumps. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the riveting stage and screen actress Fanny Ardant, Koch conveys passion smothered by duty, decorum and cowardice, shaping her music in smooth, smoky tones that quiver with intensity. "Expressive" intonation — deliberate straying from the center of the pitch — is a risky game, to be indulged in sparingly, but in Act III, Koch makes it work. The saxophone obbligato at this point is as eloquent an example as any of the detailed poetry Plasson coaxes from the orchestra throughout.
Still, this is Kaufmann's show. These days, it seems, he can do no wrong. Singers producing beautiful music do not always make beautiful faces, but Kaufmann does; the camera loves him, whether it catches him in silent meditation, in gentle reverie or in full cry, like a raging tiger. Where other tenors wallow in emotional display, Kaufmann turns inward. On his broad palette of states of the soul and spirit, self-pity is conspicuous by its absence. For the opening anthem to nature, the stage is bathed in deep purple, but Kaufmann's tones convey the golden sunset glow of what cinematographers know as the magic hour; later, Kaufmann summons up his own deep purple where it counts, in the moody Act III rhapsody "Pourquoi me réveiller." His death scene seems the promise of a Tristan of incomparable grace.
Albert, the husband chosen for Charlotte by her dead mother, is a thankless part, but Ludovic Tézier makes the most of his chances; in brief one-on-one encounters with Werther and Charlotte, he registers not as a singing cipher but as a human being with real crosses to bear. Crystalline in timbre, with a delicious, flickering vibrato and pointed articulation, Anne-Catherine Gillet does the same for Sophie. Without overplaying their hands, these artists reveal the price Werther and Charlotte's misery exacts from those who love them.
The supporting roles, which lend themselves to caricature, are handled capably and for the most part with discretion. There is shameless overacting by Andreas Jäggi in the part of Schmidt, a drunk, which is no excuse.
Sophie Koch, Catherine Gillet; Jonas Kaufmann, Ludovic Tézier; Orchestra and Children's Choir of l'Opéra National de Paris, Michel Plasson. Production: Benoît Jacquot. Decca B0014794-09 (2 DVDs), 162 mins., subtitled.