Werther – Beautiful Franco-German Gloom

There are many points of similarity between Werther which I saw last night and Anna Karenina which I saw last week.  Both are closely based on a great tragic novel by a famous European – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German, 1774) and Count Leo Tolstoy (Russian, 1877).  Both operas were composed over a century later by a composer of a different nationality – Jules Massenet (French, in 1892) and David Carlson (American, in 2007).  Both have the classic love-triangle plot of a married woman ardently courted by another man  – Albert’s wife Charlotte by the poet Werther and Karenin’s wife Anna by the soldier Vronsky.  And both stories end tragically with the suicide of one of the lovers – an obvious solution for the dead one, but one which doesn’t help the other in the least.


Ramn Vargas (Werther)


Perhaps the most important similarity is that both operas emphasize mood rather than actions.  I mentioned this at the end of my review of Anna Karenina, but it is even more true in Werther.  Up until the final pistol shot virtually nothing happens.


Alice Coote (Charlotte)


The curtain rises.  Werther takes Charlotte to the ball.  Albert returns from a six-month business trip.  W and C return from ball.  Brief curtain close for 3-month scene break during which C and A get married.  W visits them.  W goes away.  Intermission.  Three months later C rereads some of W’s letters.   W returns.  He shoots himself.  Final curtain.

So how come it was 2 3/4 hours between the polite applause which first greeted Maestro Emauel Villaume and the tumultuous applause which began the curtain calls?  The music, of course.  And some minor characters.

Act I opens with the Bailiff (Christian Van Horn) teaching his six youngest children a Christmas carol.  He explains that even though it is only July, it takes children a long time to learn to sing something right.  He is a recent widower and his household is being run by his oldest daughter Charlotte (Alice Coote) with the help of her younger sister Sophie (Heidi Stober).  There are also a couple of servants, Ktchen (Susannah Biller) and Brhlmann (Austin Kness) who move props around and stuff like that.

Heidi Stober

Werther (Ramn Vargas) appears and falls instantly in love with Charlotte’s beauty, innocence, and capabilities of managing a large household.  She is mildly attracted to him but remembers that she made a deathbed promise to her mother that she would marry Albert.  The Bailiff and his two drinking buddies Johann (Bojan Knezevic) and Schmidt (Robert MacNeil) go off to the inn.  Albert (Brian Mulligan) shows up unannounced (to “surprise” everyone) and finds no one at home but Sophie.


Brian Mulligan (Albert) and Ramn Vargas (Werther)

OK.  The characters are all on stage and you know all the action.  So what did I think of the opera as a whole?  Or rather, I should say the performance as a whole.  This is only the second time I’ve attended this opera, and frankly I remember nothing from the previous time, so I have no way of knowing how much of my total impression depends on the opera itself, and how much is due to the Director Francisco Negrin  – and some of it may be due to my seat location.

To begin with, I’ve been spoiled.  I have seen so many HD operas with their frequent use of close ups and so many live performances from rows A – D of small theaters that I am used to seeing the facial expressions of the singers as a guide to what they are feeling.  Last night we had seats on the side aisle in row M.  Granted they were in the best 10% of the seats in War Memorial Theater, in terms of distance from the stage they were like the back corner of Lucie Stern or Florence Gould Theaters and the singers looked like dwarfs.  In fact, it wasn’t until I had seen them in action for a while that I could distinguish between the two sisters, Charlotte and Sophie!  Although I found this a bit off-putting at first, the overall acting and directing was so good that I soon forgot about it.  But I would love to see Werther again on HD or produced by one of our small companies.

Alice Coote (Charlotte) and Ramn Vargas (Werther)

The focus was very strongly on Werther and Charlotte.  I had the impression that most of the other characters were in the opera only because Massenet needed something happening on stage to go with his music, and it didn’t much matter what.  At least in this production their characters were one-dimensional, at most.  The servants, Ktchen and Brhlmann appear to have some interest in each other.  Every once in a while he grabs her for a smooch which she may or may not object to.  In their final clinch she has had it – she not only pushes him away but slaps his face and he briefly joins the league-of-unhappy-men-who-don’t-understand-women.

The only thing we know about Johann and Schmidt is that they drink a lot.  They do have an amusing bit in Act II where they sing a Hymn to Bacchus in lieu of attending church, but Negrin wisely resists the temptation to let them indulge in a lot of drunken clowning.

Charlotte’s father, the Bailiff, is an almost zero character.  We know only that he drinks.  We don’t know how much or why.  We know nothing of the quality of his marriage nor of how he accepts the death of his wife.

The Bailiff (Christian Van Horn) with Sophie and the children

The six young children are respectful of their elders and sing their Christmas carol nicely.  Although they appear in the opening scenes of Act I and Act II, their only significant contribution to the story is in Act IV when their joyous off-stage rendition of their carol is in stark contrast to the sadness of Werther’s death.

Except for the final smooch-and-slap of the two servants early in Act III, none of the above minor characters appear after the opening scene of Act II.  In fact, they did not even show up to receive any share of the applause after the final curtain!

Husband Albert and sister Sophie fare a little bit better.  They appear in all four acts and actually get to do a bit of significant singing.  But Albert is still very one-dimensional.  In Act II it is not at all clear to what extent if any he is aware of how deeply Werther loves Charlotte.  Later, when Charlotte reads him some of Werther’s letters he just shrugs his shoulders in defeat and finally tears one of the letters in half and stomps angrily from the room.  At the end, when Werther writes to him,  “I am going on a long trip and would like to borrow your pistols,”  he hands the pistols to Charlotte and insists she give them to her lover.  He still does not make clear his motivation or his perception of Werther’s planned use of the pistols.

Heidi Stober (Sophie) and Alice Coote (Charlotte)

Except for the children’s caroling, Sophie is the one bright spot in this generally cheerless opera.  She flits about the stage keeping herself hidden from Werther but always keeping him in view.  Even without seeing her facial expressions, I can tell she’s got a crush on this visiting poet.  But that one fact is about it in terms of understanding her character.

Finally we get to the principals.  I had seen Ramn Vargas previously in the MetHD performance of La Boheme, and I had looked forward to hearing him again last night.  I was not disappointed in his voice and at least judged by his broad actions he was well cast as the unhappy poet.  Both Werther and Charlotte had ample opportunities and music and did a fine job of displaying how their feelings for each other kept developing right up to the final tragic denouement.

Kudos to Production Designer Louis Dsir.  The sets were simple but helped convey the changing moods and different external circumstances.  Transitions within each act were handled smoothly.  My one mild complaint in Act I was that I was still conscious of how large the stage was for such an intimate opera.

In a typical operatic violent death scene the protagonist is shot or stabbed, collapses, and then sings improbably for 5 minutes or more, often accompanied by various paroxysms.  Here, however, Director Francisco Negrin employed a very effective bit of legerdemain.

Charlotte mourns over Werther’s body while Werther’s soul sings his final aria.

When Werther enters the stage for the last time,  he is accompanied by two silent men each of similar height and build as Vargas.  All three men were identically clothed, and each carried a flaming torch.  The other two men kept to the back of the stage until the climactic moment when Werther grabs the pistol from Charlotte, there is the sound of a shot, and all three men crumple to the floor – one near the front of the stage, one sort of in the middle, and the third in deep shadow at the very back.  Charlotte throws herself on the body in front and sings her grief.  While she is singing my eye seems to catch a bit of motion at the back of the stage and when I look the third body in no longer there.  A moment later Vargas comes unobtrusively on stage and starts singing.  It is instantly obvious that the figure Charlotte is fondling is the physical body of the dying Werther, and that Vargas now represents his soul (I admit I still don’t see the significance of the other body).  This separation of body and soul is particularly apt here because the music and the words are both becoming more philosophical and spiritual and less personal.  The lighting dims slowly, the singing becomes softer and more removed from real life.  Eventually the singing stops.  The orchestra plays its last note.  The light blacks out.  The applause begins.

A very effective ending.

The Opera Nut

Photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Jules Massenet
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission
Sung in French with English supertitles
Co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago
Company Sponsors Mrs. Edmund W. Littlefield and John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn are proud to support this production.

San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-4008

Sun Sep 26 2010   2pm
Tue Sep 28 2010   8pm
Fri Oct 1 2010   8pm

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on September 24, 2010.

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