WNO, Francesco Meli bring romance back to 'Werther'

Talented cast makes Massenet's oft-neglected gem a winner. Photo: Scott Suchman

WASHINGTON, May 17, 2012 – Even though it’s probably a bit too early to judge, the Washington National Opera sure seems to be benefiting from its new relationship with the Kennedy Center. After its long winter break, WNO returned to the Kennedy Center’s Opera House a couple of weeks ago with its spectacular new production of Verdi’s epic Nabucco. This past weekend, the company opened its final opera of the season, a quiet, thoughtful, yet passionate production of Jules Massenet’s Werther—its first since 1996—starring terrific young tenor Francesco Meli in the title role. It’s a winner in nearly every way.

Massenet’s Werther is based, somewhat loosely, on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s seminal 1774 epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. It was a youthful work by this soon-to-be-major German poet who later regretted its surprising impact on impressionable young men and artists in the 19th century.

In a nutshell, Werther, a headstrong yet sensitive young man, falls madly in love with Charlotte who promptly returns the sentiments. Problem is, Charlotte’s essentially contracted to marry another guy, the somewhat bland Albert, and she feels honor bound to go through with this.

Werther and Charlotte.

Werther (Francesco Meli) and Charlotte (Sonia Ganassi). (Photos by Scott Suchman.)

Brokenhearted, Werther makes one last attempt to get Charlotte back. Failing once again due to Charlotte’s continuing moral reticence, he concludes she’s doing the honorable thing and makes things easier for everyone by taking his own life, viewing it as his own honorable solution.

The drama of Werther’s romantic passion and his ability to stand on principle, whatever the cost, inspired generations of literate young European males to live larger than life by rebelling, supporting social revolution, and, more than occasionally, sacrificing themselves for love and/or principles. And so, in an odd way, Goethe’s novel became a significant touchstone of the developing 19th century Romantic ideal whether this was his original intent or not.

Massenet, like so many other writers, artists, and musician/composers, was also taken with Goethe’s youthful novel. But, being French, he, along with his librettist, re-tooled the original to match late 19th century French sensibilities.

Massenet’s Werther is virtually the same as Goethe’s original, at least in terms of the plot structure of the opera. But instead, the composer portrayed the young anti-hero as less of a thinker and more of a lover. Concluding in the end that his love for Charlotte is too intense, too self-destructive to be good for anything or anyone on this planet, he decides that ending his own life would be the most perfect, noble, and honest expression of his passion.

In a recent interview with Mr. Meli, published last week in the Washington Times, Mr. Meli told this writer that in “the last act Werther is actually very happy because he has what he wants. He says, ‘My soul is giving you the benediction because you’re giving me death.’ It’s his way to thank Charlotte [for] letting him die for her. He’s happier dying in her arms than living with her.”

And that’s what makes this opera intensely personal, a more intimate experience than one might normally expect. It’s this personal element that moves WNO’s production under the direction of Chris Alexander. Transplanting Werther’s bucolic setting by moving it forward in time and space, WNO’s current production relocates the action to this side of the Atlantic, placing it somewhere in the American 1920s.

The production’s sets, originated in Australia and arriving here via Opéra Montréal, help to achieve Massenet’s sense of intimacy by reducing the usable size of the set to more human proportions. The first two-thirds of the opera are staged in a kind of all-purpose indoor-outdoor room that serves family gatherings and country walks equally well, while the final stanza takes place on a rotating stage that compares and contrasts Charlotte’s improved circumstances as Albert’s wife with the squalid tenement in which Werther chooses to end it all.

This kind of outsized passion seems a little over the top in today’s era of cynicism. But WNO’s cast successfully recreates a bygone era where romance and intimacy took place slowly, carefully, and sometimes inexorably face-to-face rather than via Facebook.

In many ways, Francesco Meli is the perfect choice for WNO’s Werther. In a recent interview with this marvelous tenor, he spoke with this writer at length about the meticulously layered emotions and principles that made his character tick.

Taking both his acting and his singing quite seriously, Mr. Meli has created a Werther of great inner complexity. His performance is understated, but one can feel the passion literally bristling beneath the surface in both expression and control.

Mr. Meli’s voice also seems perfectly suited to expressing Werther’s inner and outer emotions. His instrument is not—at least not at the moment—an epic, heroic tenor in the mold of Pavarotti. Rather, Mr. Meli is a lyric tenor possessed of tremendous reserve power. His voice is capable of projecting not only genuine intimacy, but also dominating, nearly aggressive passion, all without breaking character. His singing has a surprising sweetness to it, even in the opera’s most climactic moments. It’s quite a performance. And, at age 32, Mr. Meli is only going to get better.

Although Werther is by far the “big role” in this opera, Mr. Meli’s fine performance would have been considerably diminished without his fine supporting cast. As Charlotte, mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi made the best of the somewhat secondary music Massenet wrote for the role, expression confusion, sporadic passion, and, at times, terror at the feelings she seems to have aroused in both Albert and Werther.

Both Ms. Ganassi’s singing and her acting seemed well suited to bringing out the nuances of this difficult role. But it’s a shame that her flapper-era costuming seemed somewhat dowdy when compared to the rest of the female cast members. But then again, attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder, and Massenet’s Werther seems attracted to Charlotte’s inner beauty in this performance.

Sophie and Charlotte in Massenet's 'Werther.'

Sophie (Emily Albrink) tries to console Charlotte (Sonia Ganassi).

As Charlotte’s somewhat stolid husband, Albert, [baritone] Andrew Foster-Williams was able to create an interesting character, openly friendly, but also somewhat clipped and suspicious in his vocal expression which tracks well with this part. Best thing of all in his performance was his extraordinarily cynical but proper silent assist in Werther’s suicide plans in the final stanza—chilling and quite effective.

A minor but delightful surprise was Domingo-Cafritz young artist soprano Emily Albrink who sang the small but important contrasting role of Sophie, Charlotte’s lighter, less-conflicted younger sister. Her sunny, sparkling voice and manner were the perfect contrast to the darker moods of Charlotte and Werther, adding a dash of springtime to the opera’s tragic wintry conclusion. It made you wonder about Werther’s sanity, as Ms. Albrink’s Sophie, who clearly has eyes for the young man, seems as if she would have made a better match. But then, as we all know, love is blind and rarely follows logic.

In smaller roles, the supporting cast was also good, particularly bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams as Charlotte and family’s genial but sadly widowed dad, and bass Kenneth Kellogg in the small, comic, supporting role of family pal and drinking specialist Johann.

The WNO orchestra turned in a generally fine performance under the rather exuberant baton of Emmanuel Villaume, who clearly loves this opera.

An interesting note—we don’t recall the WNO either using or emphasizing Massenet’s nifty solo saxophone moments in its 1996 performance. Some performances dispense with this. But Mr. Villaume didn’t shy away from them, bringing the instrument—a symphonic novelty and somewhat daring in Massenet’s day—to the fore in key moments in the opera’s second and third stanzas. It was a welcome, interesting touch, particularly given that this Werther was repositioned, timewise, to the American Jazz Age. It totally worked.

Our only criticism of this production is the way in which its final scene is staged. As in many Romantic operas (and virtually all of Shakespeare), it’s amazing how long it takes our hero to die. The suicide of Puccini’s heroine Tosca is remarkable in its swift efficiency. Most other stage deaths are not.

In this Werther, Charlotte bursts in on the horrendous closing garret scene to find her would-be lover already slumped in a chair, his bloodstained shirt clearly indicating a massive gunshot would. Any CBS-TV CSI investigator entering the room would immediately observe, “He bled out.” But Werther isn’t nearly done with this earthly sphere, proving to be surprisingly spry before he actually expires.

Mr. Alexander inexplicably chose to accentuate this lack of verisimilitude, making the whole scene at least faintly ridiculous.

That said, this directorial take didn’t quite justify the oh-so-knowing tittering that emanated from the rear orchestra seats on opening night. Folks, you know this stuff is coming. So why annoy other listeners who care about the singing and are willing to get past the staging at the opera’s climactic moment?

The director still has a chance to minimize such responses in the final performances. That might diminish the tendency among remaining cacklebirds to exercise their constitutional right to self-expression in any venue.

Beginning Saturday, May 19, three performances of Werther remain. If you enjoy first-class French opera, consider making your reservations now to catch this gem before it departs DC for another decade and a half.

Rating: *** (Three stars out of four.)

Remaining performance on May 19, 22, 25, and 27 (matinee). Tickets range from $25-300. For tickets and information on Werther, visit the Washington National Opera’s Werther pages on the Kennedy Center’s website.

Stay tuned. Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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