Boston is becoming a welcoming city for Massenet, with recent concert performances of his Le Cid [Odyssey Opera production from September 2015 reviewed here], a re-imagined, fully-staged Werther at Longy (with the addition of letters written by Goethe himself but missing the full orchestration) for the opening of Boston Opera Collaborative’s ninth season in January [review here],
and Boston University Opera Institute’s upcoming production of his Cendrillon [April 16-19, 2016 here].
The Boston Lyric Opera’s theatrically riveting new production of Werther combines video elements by Greg Emetaz with a new bit of never-before-sung Massenet (see below) and a new setting for the story: 1920s France, on the outskirts of Paris. The French libretto’s references to 19th-century literature, esp. the comic irony directed at Verlaine in the first act, make more sense in this new context, and Goethe’s original (German) characters become romantic archetypes that foreshadow Puccini’s take on Parisian bohemians. When Goethe first published this novel, it quickly became one of the most popular books of the century, read in dozens of languages (Napoleon claiming to have read it seven times).
The neoclassical Shubert Theater was a perfect setting for the opera, as its lavish white, gold, and red color scheme and beautiful chandelier echo the interior of Vienna’s State Opera, where the work was premiered (and some of its less modern features, including a lack of elevators, a ban on children under six, and no late seating).
While the New York Times described Massenet’s music [after month-long Met run of Werther last season reviewed here] as “musically thin and emotionally cloying,” the subtle nuances of Massenet’s orchestration and his willingness to fully embrace his eponymous hero’s frustration recommend him to ardent lovers of Romantic opera. This is a psychologically astute staging of Goethe’s autobiographical The Sorrows of Young Werther, a story based on the author’s own hopeless love for an actual “Charlotte” (who married his best friend). In Massenet’s version, Charlotte is the eldest daughter of a widower with a family of nine, and from the fully-staged scene accompanying Massenet’s overture (Werther with a gun, Werther surrounded by the loving embrace of a family of children, Werther reliving his obsessive dreams…), we doubt that our hero is going to make it through four acts.
The strikingly abstract set by John Conklin (dramaturg and frequent designer for BLO’s productions dating back to their 1997 Werther) emphasized two worlds of light and color. The young Werther’s bleak, obsessive turmoil was always with us, made poignant through Emetaz’s film noir sequences projected on large abstract panels, Paul Hackenmueller’s subdued lighting (whenever our hero was alone on stage or lost in his own thoughts), and an ominous blood-red pistol case. The neutral tones of the dozen metal chairs used for staging and most of the men’s and children’s costumes drained energy from the stage. When Massenet first submitted this opera to the Opéra-Comique in 1887, it was rejected for being too gloomy and lay unperformed for five years. This production, especially Werther’s hymn to nature, his beautiful Lied d’Ossian, and Albert’s tender “Elle m’aime!” (“She loves me!”) soars to unexpected vocal and orchestral heights under the baton of David Angus.
In order to bring Werther back to nature, and allow for the vibrancy of a Parisian spring, Charlotte appears in a deep shamrock green 1920s gown (designed by Deborah Newhall). Werther’s small book (of poetry? of love letters?) was also covered in green (Charlotte accepts this from him), and warmer lighting often enveloped Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie and seven younger children from Voices Boston. Color was also used to amuse, as in the comic duet of Johann and Schmidt, who sang about their troubles while wearing “blues.”
But this is a production with no backstory, partial subtitles (lacking for many moments of minor dialogue), and a blurred sense of narrative. It is a brave approach, contrasting highly with the Metropolitan Opera’s more realistic staging last year (presenting the death and funeral of Charlotte’s mother during the Overture and using video much more literally to depict seasons). Since we see Werther in the first moments of the overture already with a gun, are we to understand the whole story as a series of flashbacks? Are Werther’s disturbed, filmic dreams purely fantasies (Goethe’s real Charlotte never actually returned his affections) or real memories?
The simplified set evokes some elements of Oliver Platt’s English Touring Opera production of Werther last Fall in London [here], but Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra retained Massenet’s lush orchestration, and added some music that may be making its world premiere this week. Both the well-annotated program book and the full-color Coda magazine described elements relating to this production, and BLO’s next: an inventive staging of The Merry Widow. Additional details about the performance and its visual and musical symbolism were provided in an informative pre-concert lecture by David Myers, accompanied by recordings and live piano excerpts from the score.
The “new” music by Massenet heard this week adds a vocal duet over orchestral music in Act IV: this added real duet-texture music to an opera that is otherwise almost devoid of ensemble harmony singing:
While preparing the Werther score several months ago, BLO Music Director and Werther conductor David Angus discovered the original manuscript of the orchestral score, in Massenet’s own hand, had recently been made available online. In reviewing it for inspiration on how to approach the score afresh, he noticed something not included in published versions of the score: a 90-second piece of vocal music and text that overlays the Act IV moment when a dying Werther finally kisses the elusive Charlotte.”
These mysterious vocal lines had the two characters joining in with the ecstatic orchestra music that plays in the moment. As Angus describes it, ‘Firstly in glorious, full unison at the tops of their voices, and then breaking apart and weaving around each other’s music in sensuous counterpoint. He describes its beauty as Puccini-like, recalling some of that composer’s soaring melodies. Angus also points out this newly discovered moment is a rare time in the work where people sing together, rather than in alternating, sung dialogue.
In consultation with two international experts on Massenet, Angus found these vocal lines have never been included in a printed, published version of the score. No research to date has revealed evidence they’ve been performed in a Werther production by a major professional opera company. After trying the scene with and without the new music in rehearsals, Angus, director Crystal Manich and the artists fell in love with the depth it gave to the scene, and decided to include the vocal lines in the performance.
Making his BLO debut, Alex Richardson is a moody, stressed-out Werther who almost never leaves the stage. Director Crystal Manich imprisons him on a raised platform in the center of the stage, around which the action of the play, and the life passing him by, revolves. Even in private moments between Charlotte and her new husband Albert, Werther is there, suffering, writing, and most of all, contemplating his future. Alex Richardson is an exceptional young Werther, with a graceful, almost ethereal approach to Massenet’s punishingly high passagework and a charismatic, vocally impassioned fervor when alone (or when he gets Charlotte alone). This is an opera with almost no duet or trio singing, and many of his vocal soliloquies are sung quite far upstage, and the distance between him and the audience heightens his mental and emotional isolation.
Dedham-native and Metropolitan Opera regular Sandra Piques Eddy presented us with two Charlottes: a youthful, somewhat vulnerable maiden, duty-bound to fulfill her mother’s dying wishes, and a vibrant, intense woman who comes into her own and steals most of her scenes from the men. Overwrought from reading Werther’s endless love letters, she poured out her sorrows to her sister Sophie, with the help of an emotional saxophone solo by Kenneth Radnofsky. The many obbligato accompaniment parts for harp were played with precision and warmth by Ina Zdorovetchi, and oboist Nancy Dimrock and violinist Annie Rabbat were equal partners to the leading singers, esp. in Acts I and II.
Sophie, sung by up-and-coming coloratura soprano Rachele Gilmore, has an emotional depth rare for this role. Her impressive performances brightened the stage and left a feeling of missed opportunity (for Werther, and maybe also for Massenet) each time she exited: she received the only applause after an aria in Act II. James Demler’s versatile and tender portrayal of Charlotte’s father helped to unify the children’s singing, and he proved a compelling father and voice teacher, as you might expect from a BU Professor of Voice. Albert, Charlotte’s husband, was sung by the commanding baritone John Hancock. A popular father-figure with the Metropolitan Opera and gifted interpreter of contemporary roles for the San Francisco Opera, he makes an impressive debut this week with the BLO, after recently covering the role at the Met.
Performances continue at Boston’s Shubert Theater (263 Tremont St., Boston) on Wednesday, March 16 at 7:30pm, Friday, March 18 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, March 20 at 3pm, with free lectures one hour before curtain.