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Filianoti's Fervent Werther

In many ways Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther is the quintessential proto-Romantic tale. A sensitive, poetic young man falls in love, but the woman he idealizes is already promised by her parents to another man. Unable to conceive of loving another, Werther takes her father’s pistols and kills himself, a literary suicide that sparked off a wave of real-life copycat suicides around Europe, as men who took to dressing like Goethe’s character and writing their own effusive poetry also followed him into death. The only operatic adaptation of the work that has really endured on its own is Werther by Jules Massenet, produced in both German and French versions in 1892. It succeeds or fails on the basis of its title role tenor, and Washington Concert Opera’s performance on Sunday night was a spectacular success mostly because of the astounding voice of Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti.

Washingtonians have waited a long time for the chance to hear Filianoti sing. As his career was gaining momentum, he was scheduled to make his debut with Washington National Opera in Lucrezia Borgia in 2008, but he backed out. He was replaced at the eleventh hour for a planned engagement at La Scala, and since then Filianoti has been struggling vocally, as anyone who follows reviews of his performances can observe. (Last year, Filianoti told James Jorden in the New York Post that he had been treated for thyroid cancer in 2006 and that the operation had damaged his voice.) So Filianoti finally made his local debut with Washington Concert Opera instead, in the role for which he has gained great acclaim, and with the exception of one slightly dicey high note at the end of the second act (“Appelle-moi!”), Filianoti sounded heroic, right on pitch, and in control of a lovely tone at all dynamics and in all tessituras. He had the most comprehensible French diction of a rather varied cast in that regard, and his legato spin (in his opening prayer, for example) was just as effective as his more actively articulated moments. The only minor flaw was a slight raggedness at the release of some long high notes.

Massenet was most inspired by the soprano voice, and some of his greatest music was written for the American soprano Sibyl Sanderson, who became his muse. Nowhere is that clearer than in Werther, where the role of Charlotte, created for a mezzo-soprano, is not only not the equal of Werther but even somewhat eclipsed by the smaller role of Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, whose flighty, vivacious nature is represented in some flights of vocal fancy. Jennifer Larmore brought considerable dignity to Charlotte, deploying her full, resonant lower register to powerful effect. The vibrato has become noticeably broad and over-active, and some of the high notes edged toward stridency, but arias like “Va! laisse couler mes larmes,” with its bluesy solo for saxophone (Massenet wrote for the instrument throughout the score, but it was played only selectively by first bassoonist Eric Dircksen, who put down his bassoon to take up the sax), and the letter-reading scene at the start of Act III had palpable dramatic power. As Sophie, Joélle Harvey had a fluttery, soubrette kind of voice that was very pretty and bubbly, giving her a coquettish turn in the laughter aria ("Ah! Le rire est beni!"), for example.

Timothy Mix headed up the supporting cast with a puissant baritone for Albert, Charlotte’s husband. Tenor Patrick Toomey and bass-baritone Eugene Galvin were funny as the pair of drinking buddies, Schmidt and Johann, after one mistaken early entrance by Galvin in the first scene. Bass Matthew Lau was fusty and fussy as the Bailiff, Charlotte’s father, with a slightly unpleasant nasality in the sound. A sextet of child singers was appropriately cute as the Bailiff’s burgeoning family, giving the Christmas carols they sing an authentic off-key quality.

Other Articles:

Joe Banno, Giuseppe Filianoti sings beautifully in Washington Concert Opera’s “Werther” (Washington Post, May 24)

Anne Midgette, Promising tenors, hitting a low note (Washington Post, May 21)

Emily Cary, Fairfax native Timothy Mix returns to Washington in "Werther" (Washington Examiner, May 16)
Artistic Director Antony Walker, fresh off his Metropolitan Opera debut in Orfeo ed Euridice, led his orchestra with a sure hand. He has that most important quality for a conductor, a sure sense of ensemble movement and the vocabulary of gestures to keep all of his forces aligned. In particular, he always takes care not to allow the instruments to swamp the singers, while also providing them enough supportive sound at the loudest points. Winds and brass were the most solid sections, with fine contributions from the horns, in particular, while the violins were the least unified and reliable, on very high attacks and in fast running passages. Cello and violin solos, like those at Werther’s moody entrance, were lovely, and the two percussionists added considerable oomph to the big climaxes, most notably with a thunder machine in the storm scene. It is unfortunate than nothing can be done about having to use a pretty awful synthesizer to cover the organ part in the chapel scene.

If you missed Werther this time around, you have only to wait until next spring for Washington National Opera’s production of it (May 12 to 27, 2012), sadly not with Giuseppe Filianoti. Washington Concert Opera’s two performances next season will be devoted to Verdi’s Attila (September 9, with John Relyea, Brenda Harris, and Jason Stearns) and Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (May 13, 2012, with Brandon Jovanovich, Michelle DeYoung, and Greer Grimsley).

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