Massenet: Werther

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 21 September 2010 3.5 stars

SFO Werther With Werther Massenet was at considerable remove from the dramatic machinations of the grand style. Action is intimate and limited, focused on Werther to the exclusion of other characters. Charlotte and Werther's attachment to one another is unusually transparent, unmarked by intrigue or coups de théâtre.

Director Franceso Negrin's Werther, a co-production between San Francisco Opera and the Chicago Lyric Opera, is the first SFO staging of the opera in twenty-five years. The production carries Werther far from its delicate simplicity and does so with mixed success.

The set used in all four acts was the work of Louis Désiré, and was essential to Negrin's project. It divided the stage into three horizontal strips. Downstage was a bedroom where Werther could (and did) stomp around like an adolescent, when he was not ensconced in a blankie, crying over Charlotte, or scrawling her name in red paint across his bedroom walls. In the middle was a main stage space with seven trees, each with brushed aluminium trunks that were meant to resonate more with the Swedish modern interior design of Ikea than Goethe's Rhinelands. At the rear was a corridor that became a thoroughfare for the main characters, who wandered across it, sometimes without apparent motivation, at other times to observe interactions in the middle zone. Meanwhile, the boundary between Werther's room and the rest of the stage was hard and fast, movement into it a form of trespass. Sophie alone undertook the illicit act to read Werther's diaries, and learn more of his obsession with her sister.

SFO WertherThe overall result was a continual (I hesitate to say dynamic) circulation of characters in a world more complex, and duplicitous, than its original. For me, this created too many compromises. In an opera so purposefully simple that Werther and Charlotte can negotiate their love across the same clair de lune music in each act, the visual and narrative twists that the production provided seemed at best redundant.

Elsewhere, abundance—of motion, and ideas—was used to sensationalist ends. When Werther went to shoot himself, not one but three Werthers pressed pistols to their heads- Ramón Vargas and two look-alikes. One alone fell, a second sustained the duet with Charlotte and a third roamed the set. It seemed a real shame to draw attention from the reversal of the classic iconic pose—that of the heroine dead in the man's arms-in the name of visual shock. Moreover, the scene was in tension with the tenderness that the orchestra, under Emmanuel Villaume, had mastered.

A further cost of that sensationalism was narrative coherence. The doubles made their initial entrance in the Charlotte-Werther Act 3 duet. In this production Negrin made the bold move to make that duet a dream sequence seen from Charlotte's perspective. But the doubles' presence persisted, both in the staged Interlude (another bold move, in which Werther makes love to Charlotte while his doubles are-thankfully-excused) and in the final act. In their initial presentation, then, the doubles were ephemera, to be banished as Charlotte awoke from slumber. But at the opera's end they are nonetheless resolutely present. In a production in which the real / unreal shifts test the limits of the audiences' narrative understanding, their migration across that divide made for additional confusion.

SFO WertherOn the vocal side, the opera was much more impressive. All characters but Werther communicated to the audience at some remove, unable to stand in the space closest to the audience-Werther's bedroom. For the most part, however, this did not create acoustic problems: one of the more singular aspects of Massenet's score is the predominance of delicate chamber string and woodwind textures that leaves voices uncovered. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote (Charlotte) charmed the audience with an intense, Italianate sound, each phrase executed with a rare control. Brian Mulligan was excellent, his arresting baritone voice able to convey Albert's simultaneous frustration and compassion. Heidi Stober's performance—her first at the SFO-was an outstanding debut; the Act 3 exchange between Charlotte and Sophie conveyed all the intensity of emotions the sisters share as Charlotte realizes the extent of her entanglement with Werther.

I was all the more disappointed then that Vargas, a veteran in his role as Werther, was not at ease. The role of Werther is formidable and this showed in Vargas' performance: for much of Acts 1 and 2 his voice was subdued, the high As and Bs notably the least resonant of all. Vargas hit his stride in the later acts, but was nonetheless smothered when Massenet's delicate textures became brassier and darker. Musical miscalculations were at their most serious in the Act 2 "Un autre est son époux!". Here, an over-ambitious tempo created some all-too apparent pitching problems. His performance in no sense matched the studio-finessed balance (and perhaps youth?) of his 1999 Werther recording under Vladimir Jurowski.

This Werther seemed too modish for its own good-overcrowded with ideas and visual stimuli, its essence lost in the process. Its voices, however, could not have been more fresh or welcomed.

By Laura Biggs

Photos credits: Cory Weaver

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LuisottiRelated articles:

Interview with Rámon Vargas
Interview with Nicola Luisotti
Review Werther at Baden-Baden with Elina Garanca
Interview with Alice Coote on his Opera North Werther