Where "Werther" is concerned, there's not much competition in DVD format--only the heavily cut and lip-synched 1985 Petr Weigl film, which is still worth checking out for Brigitte Fassbaender's performance but not for much else. All the more reason to be grateful, then, that this 2005 production does not break the spell that seems to have guaranteed good fortune to virtually all the recorded versions of Massenet's most radical and adventuresome opera in both LP and CD formats (my personal favorites: von Stade and Carreras under Colin Davis, and Kasarova and Vargas under Jurowski). The musical values in this DVD set are quite high, with sensitive direction from the podium (Philippe Jordan) and a seamlessly stellar cast--there's not a weak link in the ensemble. Andrei Serban's staging and direction are perhaps not for all markets--this production moves the drama from Goethe's late eighteenth-century setting to the 1950's--but, for the life of me, if there were ever an opera that cried out for and could actually thrive on imaginative updating, it is surely "Werther." Vincent Patterson's recent updating of Massenet's signature opera, "Manon," which views the heroine's career through the lens of various Hollywood stars (Audrey Hebburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Bergman), has received considerable acclaim (see the amazon.com reviews of the DVD); but Serban's vision engages the core elements of the drama in "Werther" far better than Patterson's treatment of "Manon." By comparison, Patterson's "Manon" seems merely clever. Serban's "Werther" is disturbing and profoundly moving, because it meticulously drives home the resemblance between the turmoil registered in the original setting and the soul-killing social and domestic proprieties of '50s-era middle-class culture. While it may be a cliche to think of the 1950s in those terms, this production makes them painfully fresh and real and gives edgy resonance to Massenet's psychologically asute music. The center of gravity does shift, however, but I think this is for the better. In Serban's production, the central character is clearly Charlotte, and the pivot of the drama turns on her (and, in Serban's staging, also Sophie's) unwillingness to acknowledge or act on the true nature of her desire until far too late. As a result, both Werther and Sophie also emerge as more complicated and far less sentimental figures than traditional stagings would allow: here Werther's instability and delusional fugues register powerfully, as does Sophie's painful and frustrated passage into adulthood. In a word, Serban's production does for "Werther" what Douglas Sirk did for filmic melodrama in the 1950s (think: "All That Heaven Allows," not to mention Todd Haynes' 2002 remake, "Far from Heaven"). Marcelo Alvarez captures the danger in Werther with powerful intensity; Elina Garanca's Charlotte is a major incarnation, especially riveting in the harrowing final act. If you love "Werther," you must see this.