Jean François Borras's Werther: Three Years Later, Even Greater

A little more than three years ago Jean François Borras got a last minute call to step in for an ailing Jonas Kaufmann. It was his first ever performance of Werther, and I remember being stunned at the beauty of his voice, the sensitivity of his portrayal, and his musical, idiomatic style.

Almost exactly three years later Borras once again got one evening to sing his Werther. It was the final performance of the run and the performance was again sparsely attended. I was a bit apprehensive at first -- would he be able to repeat the levels he reached three years ago?

I needn't have worried. He was even more wonderful. His voice has grown in the upper register, and his performance was more musical and stylish than that incredible debut three years ago. Borras is a lovely tenor, but he's not a showy singer, and his Werther didn't knock you over with the manic energy of Vittorio Grigolo's portrayal. At least not right away. However as the evening progressed I think many in the audience were jolted that they had unwittingly (???) experienced something rare and special: an, idiomatic, heartbreaking performance of one of opera's best tenor vehicles. At the end of the evening the applause was loud and deafening as the audience yelled and screamed even as the curtain was being lowered for the final time.

Since that Werther three years ago Borras' career has expanded -- he has returned to the Met every season since and is now a regular in Vienna. He has more experience with the role and it showed -- he was smarter about pacing himself.  In the first half of the opera he held his voice back sometimes. He probably realized that the big moments of Werther are in the second half of the opera. And indeed in the second half he projected his light, lyrical tenor with more force and power. "Pourquoi me réveiller" was capped with strong and secure high notes.

But Borras is not a tenor for those who want exciting, pingy performances full of squillo. He's also definitely not a tenor that eats up the stage. That was Grigolo. Borras has a pure, lyric voice. The chief virtue of his performance was his sensitivity. Unlike Grigolo, he remembered to constantly jot down thoughts in his notebook in the first act. His Werther was a young man worth caring about. Borras also seemed to inspire Isabel Leonard to give a much more emotional, inspired performance. Grigolo overpowered Leonard completely. With Leonard and Borras it was like witnessing an intimate dialogue between the two singers. They were listening to each other. The death scene was heartbreaking. David Bizic, Maurizio Muraro, and Anna Christy continued to provide solid professional vocalism. It was a performance to treasure.

Here is a video I took of the curtain calls. A very special moment.


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