Opera: Tenor Jonathan Boyd on Massenet’s Werther

Massenet’s tragic opera is a favourite of tenor Jonathan Boyd, as it allows him to give voice to unusually wide emotional range

Operatic tenors are a breed apart. No-one made that clearer than New York Metropolitan Opera soprano Frances Alda. In her published memoirs Men, Women and Tenors, she cursed the fact that, in Rossini’s Armida, she had to face up to no fewer than six of them at the one time.

These days, the divas among them have a habit of gathering in threes, a fashion spawned by the original Three Tenors – Messrs Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras – who proved collectively, in their combative testosterone-charged performances, that the most soaring of the male voices is a volcanic powerhouse capable of exuding love, hate, lust, despair, elation, heroism, fear, you name it, and with a thrill factor guaranteed to blow the listener’s mind. No wonder tenors mostly get the good parts.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But with that privilege comes a sense of danger. Ask any tenor and he’ll tell you that sustaining a major bel canto role, with its endless stream of high-tension vocal acrobatics and top Cs, is like walking a circus tightrope. Things can go wrong at any moment, but when everything goes right, the euphoria can be intense. According to the American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, “it isn’t about being perfect, but it is about making special moments.”

It’s those special moments that interest Jonathan Boyd, another American tenor, who makes his debut with Scottish Opera next week singing the angst-ridden title role in a new production, by British stage director Pia Furtado, of Jules Massenet’s Werther.

“It’s one of the most beautiful roles to sing,” says Boyd. “It’s about a character, from Goethe’s original story, who chases the impossible dream, who crosses the line between dream and reality, and who takes the most extreme action by killing himself when it all goes wrong.”

Mostly, he says, it’s the beauty of the music that does it for him – the lush, mellifluous Frenchness of Massenet’s language, compared to the showy directness you get in the Italian Grand Opera style of the 19th century.

“The harmonies and melodies Massenet uses are gorgeously rich in texture: majors and minors interacting in some phrases to underline the emotional heat; the subtle use of leitmotifs to underpin the entrance of a character or to remind us of some recurring psychological theme. Just like a modern- day film score, in fact.”

Boyd has sung the lead in Werther once before, at the Teatro Colón, Argentina. But it’s not an opera that is frequently staged, so he was delighted when Scottish Opera offered him the chance to revive the role. Nor is it one of those showpiece super-tenor roles that require the singer simply to stand and deliver the big numbers.

“Werther is full of wonderful, lush lines, contemplating death and digging to the depths of one’s soul. What’s more, it’s about the dark side of Goethe’s own life,” explains Boyd, referring to the fact that the great Romantic writer was, in his original novel, actually expressing an episode in his own youth that paralleled the fictional Werther’s – minus the final suicide, of course.

Goethe’s story isn’t exactly a bundle of laughs. Werther is 23 and falls in love with the delectable Charlotte. But Charlotte is engaged to Albert. Werther acknowledges the situation and departs, but in his heart, he cannot accept it. He returns, asking to borrow Albert’s pistols, ostensibly as protection on a trip he is planning, but in reality, these are to be the instruments of his climactic suicide.

Something in the novel impelled Massenet to set it to music. After reading it, he declared: “Such rapturous and ecstatic passion brought tears to my eyes. What moving scenes and thrilling moments it would bring about. Werther it is!”, Getting all that over to a 21st-century audience is another matter, but Boyd feels comfortable working with Furtado and her designer Helen Goddard in a production he describes as “a fascinating way of viewing Werther”.

It’s set in the early 20th century, and all done in flashback. “Werther is caught in one single day, 24 December, the day he actually kills himself,” Boyd explains. “The opera then becomes a flashback of things that made this 24 December happen. We have to ask ourselves: is he hallucinating; is he dreaming; is he actually part of it all? Ultimately it’s about how Werther sees everybody around him, rather than him coming on and reacting to them.”

As tenor roles go, Boyd believes this one challenges the voice more than most. “You have to be able to give a certain power to Werther that you would never use, for example, in Mozart. It’s about connecting to the part of the voice that is capable of expressing the full dramatic and passionate nature of the character.” But is that something only a tenor can do? After all, didn’t Massenet himself adjust the lead role for baritone for a performance in St Petersburg in 1902?

“In operas where the lead is the bad guy, you might find the baritone voice suits best – Mozart’s Don Giovanni, for instance,” says Boyd. “But Werther isn’t a bad guy, and if you take things back to the way the role was originally sung – it needs a lighter vocal mechanism – then a tenor, especially in full voice, gives you that quality. The baritone’s voix mixte – the mix of head and chest voice – is more like a falsetto. You don’t want that.”

So tenor it is, just the way Massenet intended. And with it a chance for Boyd to make an impression on Scotland and the UK, where, despite regular successes in America, South America and mainland Europe, he has yet to establish a professional presence.

“My only encounter with Scotland was years ago,” he recalls. “It was a few days after Princess Diana died. I had been appearing at the Broomhill Festival in England, and decided to take the train to Inverness, then cycle via Inverness, Arisaig and Glasgow, en route to Edinburgh.”

Years on, he now faces his first big operatic role in the UK. A tenner says it won’t be his last.

•  Scottish Opera’s new production of Werther opens at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 15 February, and transfers to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre from 26 February, see www.scottishopera.org.uk