Now over thirty years old, this recording inspires in me the same affection and admiration as when I first heard it. Massenet is mildly scorned in some quarters; he had his fair share of flops and sometimes fell into a maudlin mode which smacks of trying too hard to please with easy sentimentality, but I am with Beecham regarding the beauties of his best operas (even if I would not go so far as to make frivolous, disparaging comparisons with Bach's Brandenburg Concertos...). "Manon", "Thais" and "Werther" are among my very favourite operatic entertainments for their sheer sumptuousness of sound, coherence as drama and distillation of French elegance. It helps to be a Francophile/phone but I honestly think anyone who loves the human voice in its most refined form would succumb to Carreras's opening recitative and aria, "Je ne sais si je veille"; it is the apotheosis of the Romantic sensibility in its adoration of Nature and the yearning plangency of its music. His French is pretty good and his voice at its very peak: warm, vibrant always suffused with a hint of tears - perfect for the arch-idealist Werther.
Von Stade is hardly less moving as Charlotte; she, too, has the ideal voice for the heroine with her rich, oboe sound and flickering vibrato. I am invariably moved to tears by the restrained passion of the duet for Werther and Charlotte at the end of Act 1. The supporting cast provides an embarras de richesses with such distinguished and elegant singers as Thomas Allen and Robert Lloyd; even the children are delightful. Colin Davis is not yet groaning obtrusively along with his performers and directs a sensitive and wholly idiomatic account of this grimly gorgeous tale; the ROH orchestra play wonderfully, caressing the score. The analogue sound is exemplary, as was so often the case from Philips in this era.
I am almost equally as attached to the recording in English of the similarly blessed ENO production with Janet Baker and John Brecknock as equally convincing doomed lovers which memory recalls as a visual, as well as aural, delight; I recommend any Massenet aficionado to own both.