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The Joys of Massenet's 'Werther'

Francesco Meli (Werther) and Sonia Ganassi (Charlotte), in Werther, Washington National Opera, 2012 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Two performances of Massenet's Werther in less than a year -- but do not expect me to complain, especially when the performances are both so good. After Washington Concert Opera last year, Washington National Opera has returned to this unabashedly Romantic opera for the first time since 1996. The story, adapted quite freely from the 1774 epistolary novel by Goethe, is ready-made for opera -- a young woman caught between the marriage arranged for her and the love of a sensitive poet, who cannot let go of the dream of true romance.

Werther needs an excellent tenor to sing the title role, which Washington has also had twice -- Giuseppe Filianoti last year, and in an exemplary WNO debut, Francesco Meli this year. He had almost all of the qualities required for this daunting role: a heroic, ringing top (only a couple of the very highest notes weakened just slightly on Saturday night), a dulcet tone giving him control over the softer passages (a lovely "O Nature, pleine de grâce"), and a sincere and arresting stage presence. Werther is meant to outshine everyone else -- in fact, because he sings such beautiful music, one may be more inclined to excuse the character's overly dramatic, self-indulgent poetic excesses -- and in Meli's hands he certainly did. Mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi had strength when she needed it as Charlotte, especially in the moving letter scene, but she shrank into the background in many places, not helped by the dumpy costumes, otherwise quite becoming (designed by Barilà). The fault is perhaps due to Massenet's score as much as it is to Ganassi: Massenet wrote much of his best music for the soprano voice -- Manon, Thaïs, Esclarmonde, La Fée in Cendrillon, many conceived for the apparently astounding American soprano Sibyl Sanderson -- and the much more sparkling writing for Charlotte's younger sister, Sophie, here providing a fizzy, light-as-a-feather main stage outing for former Domingo-Cafritz artist Emily Albrink, should be a sign to Werther that he might be better off with her.

Emily Albrink (Sophie) and Sonia Ganassi (Charlotte), in Werther, Washington National Opera, 2012 (photo by Scott Suchman)
Andrew Foster-Williams was just as robust of voice as Albert, Charlotte's hapless husband, as he was in the company's memorable Tamerlano -- puissant, with excellent intonation, if perhaps too many wrinkles of vibrato in the tone. Among the supporting cast, bass Kenneth Kellogg had the strongest turn as Johann, one of the comic-relief drinking buddies along with Tim Augustin's Schmidt, friends of Charlotte's slightly overwhelmed paterfamilias, Le Bailli, sung with comic verve by Julien Robbins. Young singers Jason Buckwalter and Maria Dolan Barnes were an earnest pair as the other lovers, Brühlmann and Käthchen, who are more interested in books and poetry than each other. Director Chris Alexander did his best work in the note-perfect opening of the opera, capturing the childhood innocence of Charlotte's household, with delightful contributions from the young members of the WNO Children's Chorus (directed by Michelle Kunz). Charlotte, the eldest daughter, is raising her many younger siblings after her mother's death, and her maternal role and the charms of the children are at least a part of Werther's affection for her.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Opera review: ‘Werther’ at the Washington National Opera (Washington Post, May 14)

Tim Smith, 'Werther' gets eloquent treatment from Washington National Opera (Baltimore Sun, May 14)

Alex Baker, Werther at WNO (Wellsung, May 14)

T. L. Ponick, ‘Werther’ is a feel-good tragic tale (Washington Times, May 10)

Emily Cary, Baritone shines in 'Werther' (Washington Examiner, May 10)
The production comes from Opera Australia by way of the Opéra de Montréal, and it is generally effective, although the updating of the story to the 1920s, in what appears to be the American (or, conveniently, any other country's) heartland -- wheat fields, flapper outfits, bobbed hair -- makes the central crisis, an arranged marriage, seem far less plausible. The sets by Michael Yeargan are large and plain, serving as both the garden of the family home, the courtyard in front of the church, and the well-appointed home of Albert -- the last drained of all color, down to the white books in the white shelves, in perhaps heavy-handed symbolism of the loveless marriage. Rather than the bleak, snowy Christmas Eve landscape that is described in the libretto for the introduction to the final scene, the death of Werther, Alexander staged a scene showing Charlotte, nervous about what Werther will do with the pistols Albert has just forced her to send to him, detained at the house by arriving dinner guests. While intriguing on its own terms, this shifted the focus from Werther's despair to Charlotte's anxiety, which was one of the causes of the quasi-deflation of the final scene. The stage within a stage arrangement of the set, it turned out, was all for the ultimately unneeded effect of Albert's dining room rotating to reveal Werther's grubby garret. The clumsy staging of Werther's death, with too much standing up and dying again, caused some laughter in the audience. Emmanuel Villaume did the honors in the pit, slightly hysteric of gesture for a performance that had its fair share of raggedness. Principal clarinetist David Jones played some of the alto saxophone part (used by Massenet throughout the score but often, as here, added selectively), most effective in the bluesy solos that tint Charlotte's tragic aria "Va! laisse couler mes larmes."

This production continues for six more performances (May 14 to 27), in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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