In introducing Saturday evening’s performance, Boston Opera Collective’s General Director, Chelsea Beatty, commented on her experience of Metropolitan Opera’s sprawling production of Jules Massenet’s Werther last year: an ant-sized Jonas Kaufmann projected to her obstructed-view seats in the upper balconies of theater. Intentionally or not, BOC’s Lettres de Werther at Longy School’s Pickman Hall presents a miniature and intimate response to the Met’s grandiosity and constitutes a fine opening for the company’s 2015 season.
BOC’s Lettres, a daring read of the Jules Massenet’s original Werther, is not for purists. Massenet’s opera sets Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther—an early work that garnered the poet international recognition. Goethe’s novel tells the pseudo-autobiographical story of a young Werther who falls in love with the betrothed Charlotte, is rebuffed, and commits suicide. Whereas Massenet’s librettists Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann place Werther in linear time, BOC’s Patricia-Maria Weinmann and Greg Smucker take an oblique approach to the story: BOC’s Lettres de Werther restores the epistolary nature of Goethe’s novel: an aged Charlotte receives a collection of letters written by Werther during his infatuation with her. Upon re-reading these, she (and we) are transported to the estate at Wetzlar to relive Werther’s tragic suicide in Charlotte’s memory. Arias and interludes from Massenet’s opera arise organically from passages that an older Charlotte (played by Lindsay Conrad) reads aloud—as if these painful memories can only be recollected in the form of music.
The re-parsing of Massenet’s work in Saturday’s performance resulted in a streamlined, cohesive compression of the two-plus-hour score to a modest 90 minutes. Stripped of belle epoque trappings except for the handsome costumes, the production offers minimalist set design and scenery. At times these tradeoffs seem needlessly Spartan: digitally projected scenery intending to lend an impressionistic ambiance appeared splotchy and pixelated; an overly-squeaky platform for Werther’s deathbed detracted from the pathos of his suicide; no blood at all would have been preferable to the comic red splotch that appears on Werther’s shirt in the opera’s final scene. However, the conception and intention of BOC’s stark set design is effective: an empty tiered stage, sparsely decorated with a table and a few chairs is the only platform on which the story takes place, save for an aged Charlotte sauntering throughout the stage while the drama unfolds—a living specter among her memories.
A lone piano stood in for the late-Romantic orchestra in BOC’s production, and in the hands of pianist and music director Jean Anderson Collier, the affect was expansive and fluent. Replacing the orchestra with piano revealed Massenet’s stylistic palette more clearly—certainly, jazz was not too far away from wending its way into opera—but also stripped the work of the lush romantic swells that support and intensify the emotional moments. In adapting Werther’s grandeur for a smaller space, BOC’s miniature Lettres rewards with a compensatory emotional intimacy well-suited to the opera’s internal scale.
The show features two casts. Saturday evening’s performance benefited from a fleet, cohesive ensemble that showed complete dedication to the production’s heightened tone. The production also boasted strong vocal performances. Heather Gallagher, as Charlotte, was a clear highlight of the evening: Gallagher manages a radiant full tone throughout her entire range that is both full and sensitive to the vocal line. This paired well with soprano Evelyn Tsen’s pure, flexible voice—an ideal casting for the innocent Sophie. Salvatore Atti, in the title role, although at times less resonant in the upper reaches of his range, filled Pickman Hall with a rich, well-controlled tenor that reflected fine drama portrayed on stage. Baritone Luke Scott, cast as Albert, maintains a robust, solid sound. Lettres repeats on Thursday, with this cast, and Friday with an alternate cast comprising Omar Najmi (Werther), Sadie Gregg (Charlotte), Patrick McNally (Albert), and Allesandra Cionco (Sophie).