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May 14, 2012

'Werther' gets eloquent treatment from Washington National Opera

Maybe it is not better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Consider the case of young Werther, the central figure of the hugely influential novel penned by Goethe in 1774 and reborn in Massenet's masterful opera from 1892.

When Werther is prevented from pursuing the object of his intense desire, he becomes so stressful that he sees suicide as the only sensible option.

We have therapy for that sort of thing now, of course. I suspect a lot of people today cannot summon much sympathy for someone as obsessive and morose as Werther.

And I assume they were the types sniggling a few times during Washington National Opera's performance of "Werther" Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

So, OK, maybe the super-romanticism does get a little thick in the Massenet work, especially during the protracted death scene for the title character, but the music rings true. Massenet, a master of melody, mood and orchestral coloring, captured the essence, the soul of Goethe's story (one based on a real incident, by the way).

What the composer's fine librettists added in the way of character development fleshes out the story nicely, particularly in the case of Charlotte, the woman Werther falls for instantly and who feels she must marry someone else because of a promise to her dying mother. In the opera, Charlotte reveals much more of an attraction to Werther, much more of a conflicted conscience, than Goethe described.

This is an opera that can really grab hold when it is sung with elegance and eloquence, and when it is staged with sensitivity. For the most part, that's ... 

exactly what WNO delivers in a production updated, in mostly effective fashion, to late-1920s/early '30s -- Massenet's inspired use of the saxophone in the orchestration takes on a whole new significance in a setting with Jazz Age overtones.

The big news here is the company debut of Francesco Meli in the title role.

On Saturday, the Italian tenor produced consistently stylish, deeply beautiful singing, the sort you more often find only on vintage recordings.

Yes, there was a fortissimo note that didn't quite hold together. And nitpickers would subtract points for the singer's switch to falsetto once or twice. But what classy vocalism this was overall, so tender in tone, so exquisitely refined in phrasing.

The tenor's rhythmically elastic delivery of the opera's hit aria, the ultra-melancholy "Pourquoi me reveiller," proved electric. He was supported every measure of the way in that aria by conductor Emmanuel Villaume, whose appreciation for the inner beauty of the opera and ability to coax refined playing from the orchestra was a notable plus all evening.

Meli proved to be a believable actor, although even he could not quite make it easy to understand why this Werther would go crazy for this Charlotte.

Why on earth was Sonia Ganassi, an excellent artist who used her plush mezzo to incisive effect, made to look so matronly and constricted? Her hair style, her clothes -- way too close to Margaret Dumont territory (Barila designed the otherwise persuasive costumes). Ganassi did her best to enliven the character, though; her acting in the last two acts was especially telling.

The dowdy look for Charlotte wasn't the only miscalculation from director Chris Alexander, who certainly rings a lot of fascinating ideas to the production. But he undercut his own imaginative way of intensifying the drama and enriching the atmosphere in Act 3.

Here, Charlotte and her husband Albert host a Christmas Eve party. When Charlotte tries to flee in order to prevent Werther's suicide, she finds her way blocked by arriving guests and must quickly regain her composure to welcome them. So far so good. But Alexander repeats this scene of departure interruptus several times, so it just ends up looking silly.

Otherwise, there is much to savor in the staging -- well, "much" may not be the word, since Michael Yeargan's set, originally for Opera Australia, doesn't come close to filling the stage here.

But, overall, the clean lines, subtle use of props and refined lighting (by Mark McCullough) are really quite compelling. The background during the autumnal second act, for example, with tall grasses against a pinkish sky, has the poetic depth of a Wolf Kahn landscape.

The supporting cast came through vividly on opening night. Julien Robbins gave an endearing portrayal of Charlotte's father and sang colorfully. Deft work, vocally and dramatically, came from Emily Albrink as Charlotte's sister Sophie and Andrew Foster-Williams as Albert.

The children's chorus, prepared by Michelle Kunz, made a bright contribution. But I wish the kids' offstage Christmas carol at the end -- the juxtaposition of that jollity with Werther's death is among the most incisive touches in Massenet's score -- could have been sung a little farther offstage, just to give it a more haunting quality.

Performances continue through May 27.



Posted by Tim Smith at 1:11 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


There are many problems with the current Washington National Opera production of Jules Massenet’s “Werther.” For me the major problems are with Edouard Blau’s libretto. This is not the story that brought Johann Goethe fame even though he gets credit in the program. I think the basic fabric of the Goethe story has been shredded. The relationships that are a pivotal part of Goethe’s work seem to have little resemblance to what is in the opera. The importance of the family and Charlotte needing a husband that can provide for the children (some were ill) are critical to the story, but are missing in the opera. That's the problem with this opera; it’s a shell of what it could have been. That's why poor Werther seems to careening off of the walls, benches, and doors looking for meaning to what’s happening to him. It makes you wonder what happened on his first and only date that would change him so, but did not change Charlotte. There are many operas that have been transferred from books to the stage. Maybe the issue is that one is not seeing Goethe’s work but Edouard Blau’s. It seems the only other opera he worked on with Massenet was “El Cid.” This is a vastly inferior work that’s translates into an inferior opera. The singing at the Kennedy Center seemed very uneven for this. Massenet’s music is very good and Emmanuel Villaume did a good job in conducting. I think it would help if this was presented in a concert opera, and hopefully one would not be distracted by what's happening on the stage. Sorry, this is a poor production of a bad opera.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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