Colin Davis' studio recording of Massenet's Werther, starring José Carreras and Frederica von Stade, won Gramophone's Engineering Award in 1981 for good reason; it is one of the best-sounding operatic recordings you'll ever hear. The sense of theatrical space, the warmth of tone, and the overall balance between voices and orchestra are as good as studio opera recordings get. Davis' conducting is just as fine, eliciting stunningly warm and vivid playing from the Royal Opera House orchestra. Just the third act, in which Frederica von Stade invests Charlotte's struggles over her feelings for Werther with amazing pathos and vocal beauty, is enough to make her recording of the role an all-time great performance. And the supporting contributions of Thomas Allen, Isobel Buchanan, and Robert Lloyd are good enough to make you wish this most couple-centric of operas gave them all more stage time. In the end, however, any Werther is judged by its tenor, and one's response to this recording is likely to hinge on the performance of José Carreras. His distinctively dark sound and heavy-footed style effuse anything but the youthfulness that would explain Werther's impetuous behavior. But they do lend the character more gravity, and more potency, than some of the more elegant tenors who have made a name in the role, like Alfredo Kraus (many people's favorite choice for this opera). And it could be argued that Carreras' approach, which often seems as much about him as about the drama, is the very embodiment of selfishness -- and who is more selfish in the end than Werther? Choosing a favorite Werther is a matter of taste. But as an overall representation of the opera, this has to be considered a top contender.
Massenet: Werther Review
by Allen Schrott