by SOPHIE KERMAN
With its latest offering of Werther by Jules Massenet, we start to see the trajectory of the Minnesota Opera‘s 2011-12 season. Having started the year with the user-friendly Cosí Fan Tutte and continued with the innovative Silent Night, the Opera now presents a completely different kind of audience experience. Werther, based on the 1774 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is a much more musically-oriented opera than either of its predecessors this season. Having learned how to watch opera with Cosí and how to understand operatic structures with Silent Night, Werther takes its place in the season as the opera that teaches us how to listen.
Werther (pronounced ver-TAIR) was such a hit in Goethe’s day that Massenet’s 1892 operatic adaptation could be likened to the movie version of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. The original publication of the book inspired devoted readers to dress up as Werther, and a rash of copycat suicides led authorities to worry about “Werther Fever.” The story, so deeply resonant in the minds of 18th- and 19th-century European readers and viewers, tells of young love kept apart by duty and tradition. In a nutshell: Werther – a brooding young man who modern audiences would call “emo” – sees Charlotte at a ball and falls madly and instantly in love with her. Charlotte, however, has promised her dying mother that she would marry Albert. Unable to cope with his heartbreak – sorry for the spoiler – Werther shoots himself.
Because Werther‘s plot is very simple on a superficial level, it is the internal dramas of the characters which were (and still are) so compelling. In the opera, the music (conducted with great drama by Christoph Campestrini) acts as a soundtrack to the moods of each character. Although this is not a virtuoso opera – the vocal lines are more lyrical than showy – James Valenti and Roxana Constantinescu have electric chemistry in their portrayals of Werther and Charlotte, pouring so much conflicted emotion into their singing that the audience can almost follow the plot without reading the subtitles. And as Charlotte’s relentlessly optimistic sister, the charming Angela Mortellaro (who always seems to be accompanied by the orchestral equivalent of birds and butterflies) provides some much-needed relief from the angst.
Massenet’s music provides all the beauty and intrigue one might expect at the opera; however, the story’s emphasis on inner struggles makes for somewhat less visual interest. To add some appeal, designer Allen Moyer has placed the characters on a set that teeters on the edge of the industrial era – while indoor scenes depict a sense of old-world luxury, metal scaffolding frames the stage in a stark reminder of the modern age to come. These scenic elements, like the music, reflect the dramatic conflict between love and loyalty, although – also like the music – they can sometimes come across as heavy-handed. (“Liebe oder Tod” – “Love or Death,” scrawled on the wall of Werther’s study in Act IV – is the most blatant example.)
All in all, Werther is a musical opera, rather than a theatrical one. Those expecting intrigue and scheming will be disappointed, while those who favor long melodic lines and top-notch singing will find exactly what they’re looking for. For the more dramatically-minded viewers, I suggest considering what might have happened if Werther had, instead, been entitled Charlotte. (Act III, in particular, is essentially all about her and contained the most psychologically interesting moments of the entire opera.) Though not as easily accessible as some other operas, Werther is all about who and what you’re listening for, and it will reward those come ready to hear.
For production videos and interviews with the cast, visit the Minnesota Opera’s YouTube page.
Werther by Jules Massenet. Sung in French with English translations projected above the stage. Presented by the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway, 345 Washington St., St Paul, MN 55102. January 28-February 5, 2012. Tickets $20-200 on www.mnopera.org or by calling the ticket office at 612.333.6669.