So far as recordings go, Werther is Massenet's most popular opera and by consensus his most inspired (once we get to Acts III and IV, at least). Since the revieweers below have rapturously praised this Colin Davis set, let me offer just a few comments on the competition. Werther has been sung by a wide range of singers; it can sound decidely verismo Italian as well as elegantly French; the conductor can pull the score toward refined lyricism or bursting passion.
I will list the various sets according to conductor and rorughly in chronological order:
Elie Cohen: Naxos offers a bargain version in surprisingly listenable sound of the first complete recording from 1931. Georges Thill imprinted the role of Werther in the minds of many listeners, and he is exemplary, the best French tenor before Alagna and twice as elegant as his successor. Ninon Vallin is a lyric soprano, one of the few to take on Charlotte other than a mezzo. Her Gallic style and even the type of vibrato she uses match Thill's perfeclty. Cohen moves the socre along with energy, and the latest remastering is clean and about as dynamic as one might hope for from the early electrical era.
Georges Pretre: We jump ahead to 1968, when this famous set with Victoria de los Angeles and Nicolai Gedda was made for EMI. De los Angeles joins Vallin as a soprano Charlotte, but with more weight to the voice, and gives us one of her most touching and beautiful portrayals. Gedda is in nearly ideal voice and sings with more passion than usual. Pretre, a highly variable conductor, leads with suppleness and sensitivity. A great recording in excellent, if close-up, sound.
Jose Lopze-Corbos: This dark horse among Werthers is a live performance from 1977 in Munich, distributed by Orfeo in good FM radio stereo. Conducting and singing are both white hot, pushing this performance squarely into verismo range, a la Cavalleria Rusticana. The two leads, Placido Domingo and Birgitte Fassbaender, couldn't be more passionate or musical. They have been plunked down in the middle of a German produciton, so nobody sings French well, least of all Domingo, with the exception of the scrupulous Fassbaender. This is a one-of-a-kind recording that some critics hail as all around the most satisfying on disc.
Colin Davis: Coming from Covent Garden, where von Stade and Carreras had just starred in the opera, this Werther is one of the high points of Davis's reign there, along iwth his Peter Grimes. Von Stade has won praisee as an exemplary Charlotte, and her beautiful high-lying mezzo was caught at its peak, before a characteristic fast beat became overly prominent. Carreras doesn't attempt French refinement; to him, Werther is first cousin to Cavaradossi, but he holds the sobs in check, and his voice in 1980 hadn't suffered too much from the onset of coarseness, strain and wobble. Davis gives a very committed reading from the pit.
Antonio Pappano: Another EMI production made in 1998, thirty years after the Pretre. Sonics are more dynamic than on the earlier set, but he microphones were set farther back, lessening dramatic impact quite a bit except at high volume. The stars are husband and wife, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. He sings in the same lyric style as Gedda, not pushing for heroics, and he has the distinciton of being a native French speaker, almost unheard of on recordings after Thill in 1931. I'd rank this one of Alagna's premiere roles. Gheorghiu strains a little with her bottom notes, as any soprano Charlotte would, but she is committed and dramatic, and the beauty of her tone carries her a long way. Pappano belongs among the first rank of Massenet conductors, although his attention to refined phrasing and detail makes the longueurs of the simpering music in Act 1 move too slowly. A minor quibble given the general excellence of this set.
Kent Nagano: An also-ran that is now out of print, this 1997 set on Erato deserves more notice. Nagano brought his Lyon Opera forces to itnernational prominence, and here they demonstrate winning Gallic style. The two principals are Jerry Hadley and Anne Sophie von Otter, both in top voice. She provides yet another in the long line of outstanding mezzo Charlottes, equalling von Stade in everything but the last ounce of intensity. Hadley sings awkward French and is somewhat subdued, but if you are looking for an elegant Werther with impeccable phrasing and gorgeous tone, Hadley may be the best on records since Gedda.
These are meant only as abbreviated comments, and I have passed over several modern stereo Werthers that I haven't heard. But this opera strikes me as Massenet's masterpiece, and it was a pleasure to rehear several very fine recordings.