Massenet’s “Werther” Returns to San Francisco, After 25 years

Tenor Ramón Vargas as Werther. Photo by Robert Millard.

Review By Janos Gereben: September 17, 2010, San Francisco

Such is the power of music that in spite of many obstacles, the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Jules Massenet’s 1892 “Werther” had some affecting moments at its premiere on Wednesday.

In the 88-year history of the company – which has presented about 200 performances each of La Boheme and Madama Butterfly during that period – this is only the sixth production of Werther; the last was in 1985, with Alfredo Kraus and Renata Scotto. There are reasons for it being a rarity, beginning with the work on which it is based, Goethe’s 1774 “The Sorrows of Young Werther”.

This novel, written in form of a series of letters, had an enormous influence in the formation of the Romantic literary movement, but its permanently bereft hero is difficult to root for two centuries after his predictable demise. The Pushkin-Tchaikovsky team did so much better with similarly woebegone Onegin.

Boy loves girl, girl marries someone else, boy dies, girl is sorry – it’s been done many times, but usually with more ups and downs, instead of nothing but downs. From Goethe to Massenet to director Francisco Negrin, Werther has been shown increasingly gloomy and hopeless, until that’s pretty much all you get, undifferentiated.

For the opera, unlike Massenet’s powerful Manon, Werther reflects the novel’s enervated nature, while it provides a few beautiful melodies. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume led an exceptional orchestral performance, with outstanding woodwinds, especially Janet Popesco Archibald’s English horn and SF Ballet Orchestra clarinetist James Dukey’s alto saxophone.

Next, Francisco Negrin’s “different” direction, providing such puzzles as the heroine, Charlotte, reading Werther’s letters to her husband (?!) instead of “alone at home on Christmas Eve.”

[See Negrin’s explanation, and the quote from Goethe to contradict him: “We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things; and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavor to efface them.” As to Negrin’s “the love duet doesn’t actually take place in this production,” I don’t know what he means – there *are* two love duets, the second dissolving into some unseemly rolls in the hay… without hay.]

Tenor Ramón Vargas as Werther and Alice Coote as Charlotte. Photo by Robert Millard.

Negrin’s many quaint and distracting ideas include Sophie (the appealing Heidi Stober) aggressively stalking Werther; the use of two body doubles for Werther in the final scene (adding up to three – four, according to the program – Werthers), and such. Triplicating a character is not even new; S.F. Ballet had a multiple Cyrano many years ago, etc. “Clever” directors adding too many supposedly interesting bits to a story end up taking away from it.

Louis Désiré’s production design is weird and “unhelpful,” what with large screens displaying films of what – or, rather, who – Werther is thinking about, large piles of boxes, abstract and puzzling light projections, some looking like computer download indicators, others showing houses in the air. On top of Werther’s unmade bed at the edge of the stage (with a big screen for the wall), looms a stage-wide platform with abstract trees, a painted frame in front where the leaves should be, showing – inconsistently – the change of season.

Werther is a tenor’s opera, and Ramón Vargas almost took charge of the first two acts that comprise the first part in San Francisco, where “we do everything with one intermission.” The voice is beautiful, the phrasing is correct, but volume and projection seemed insufficient from the orchestra section, weakened perhaps by the singers’ position on the platform. Those listening from the balcony might have fared better. Dramatically, not much can be done with two hours of sighing, pining, suffering.

Alice Coote’s Charlotte (replacing the originally scheduled Elina Garanca) was robust in voice and appearance, power favored over beauty and delicacy. The house debut of Stober’s Sophie showed great promise.

Brian Mulligan sang Albert; newly-married Adler Fellows Susannah Biller and Austin Kness sang smaller roles, along with Robert MacNeil and Bojan Knezevic.

A scene from “Werther”.  Photo by Robert Millard.

Full program page at San Francisco Opera Archives

Werther by Massenet
War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
8 p.m. Sept. 17, 28, Oct. 1; 7:30 Sept. 22; 2 p.m. Sept. 26
Tickets: $20 to $280

Contact: (415) 864-3330, San Francisco Opera

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