By Jules Massenet Directed by Francisco Negrin San Francisco Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Alice Coote and Ramón Vargas in the San Francisco Opera production of “Werther”
Photo by Cory Weaver

Jules Massenet was the musical darling of the French Belle Époque. But of his 24 operas, only a handful are performed today – “Manon,” “Thaïs,” “Werther” and, once in a while, “Don Quichotte.” Of these, “Werther,” which premiered in 1892, comes closest to real life, a kind of Gallic verismo. Taken from “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” a popular work of the German romantic Goethe, it is the tale of a poet, emotionally destroyed by an impossible love, who takes his own life. Literary legend has it that there was an alarming rash of suicides among young men shortly after the book was published and its author had to issue a disclaimer, separating fiction from reality. To this day, copycat suicide is known as “The Werther Effect.”

In a new production at San Francisco Opera, director Francisco Negrin – aided and abetted by stage designer Louis Désiré – takes the work as far from reality as he can, making it happen in the minds of the protagonists. What results is a highly confusing stage picture of a musically engaging piece, well performed but poorly conceived. At the end, one wonders if it truly is the hero who should be shot.

Nevertheless, this is opera and the music is beautiful, flowing and graceful, with few arias or set pieces that allow the audience to interrupt the proceedings with applause. And it is beautifully performed. Outstanding is the British soprano Alice Coote as Charlotte, Werther’s beloved who, in spite of her reciprocal feelings, honors her pledge to wed another man. That man, Albert, a solid stolid burgher, is well sung by Brian Mulligan. Heidi Stober makes a stunning San Francisco Opera debut as Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister who, herself, harbors feelings for Werther. Christian Van Horn, Bojan Knezevic and Robert MacNeil are a charming trio of elderly sots.

The acclaimed tenor Ramón Vargas takes the title role. Vargas is a marvelous singer, as he has proven in numerous roles in opera houses around the globe. But, on opening night, he was in less than top form. Although he wrapped his supple voice around most of Werther’s demanding music, his top notes were consistently off. Perhaps the famous San Francisco fog got to him. His scenery-chewing acting was more than appropriate for the part of the distraught poet.

Now to that production. Director Negrin has a cinema background and, rather than being content to let us simply hear the opera, he insists on showing it to us. But what we see is Negrin’s own interpretation, by way of designer Louis Desire; people enclosed in a metal container or in a tiny basement room. Yes, “Werther” is about repressed emotions and missed opportunities, but we could really get that without a lot of confusing clues. Charlotte’s family is in mourning for her recently-deceased mother. That is indicated by a jumble of boxes and trunks containing her things at one side of the stage. Werther’s room, a messy warren of photos and bedclothes with a blood-red “Charlotte” painted on the wall, is on the lower deck of Desire’s multi-level set. People enter and exit from an underground stairwell. Trees are encased in metal jackets and the seasons are indicated on a screen – green leaves for summer, red for fall, no leaves at all in the wintertime. It’s not very attractive and pretty confusing, especially if you haven’t read the “Director’s Note” in the program.

But the most egregious touch of all comes during an orchestral interlude between the third and fourth acts. Werther has gone away, exiled by Charlotte who wants to preserve her marriage and place in society. Re-reading his letters, she realizes that she does indeed love him and, when she goes to sleep, she dreams. The hot sex scene that ensues actually is only in her mind but, to those who don’t know the opera (Massenet would turn over in his grave), it would appear to really have happened. In the next scene, the genuinely moving death scene, Charlotte gives Werther the “first kiss” he has been longing for. How strange, since we have just seen her give him a great deal more. Moreover, there is a double lying on the ground while Vargas stands in the background and sings. Now, I know it is difficult to sing lying down, but it has been managed elsewhere and this was not the best solution.

This production, shared with Lyric Opera of Chicago, may go down better in the Windy City. Who knows? But there was much intermission grumbling in the hallways of the San Francisco Opera House and, when the design team took their bows, some booing was heard. It might be better to do this “Werther” with your eyes shut. The music is lovely.

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