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Opera Review: “Werther” at the Kennedy Center

Massenet’s tale of doomed love gets a spectacular staging in this gorgeous production.

Francesco Meli as Werther and Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther first appeared in 1774, it inspired a craze, kindling a white heat among a certain kind of impressionable reader—young, alienated, lovesick, forlorn—who identified with the melancholy poet Werther and his doomed love for the beautiful Charlotte. The book, a hallmark of the Sturm und Drang movement, presaged the Romantic age—and yet by the time Jules Massenet composed his opera based on the work more than a century later, Romanticism was in its wane. Maybe as a consequence, Massenet’s music, though impassioned, heartfelt, and ecstatic, isn’t florid or indulgent (despite the heavy-breathing libretto). The score seems almost spare, restrained in its orchestral textures, the palette heavy on the somber tone colors of the woodwinds and lower brass, not to mention the haunting solo saxophone.

Above all things, perhaps, Werther is a work of contrasts: between darkness and light, youth and age, duty and freedom. And the Washington National Opera’s splendid new production—conducted by Emmanuel Villaume and directed by Chris Alexander—dramatizes these extremes from the moment the curtain rises; we see at once the divide between the creature comforts of Charlotte’s home and the sunlit wheat fields beyond. This distinction is crucial, because Werther represents the pantheistic world of field, stream, sun, and moon, and his pursuit of the already-betrothed Charlotte is a clash between the poetry of the natural world and the realm of bourgeois domesticity. Charlotte’s fiancé, Albert, promises a life of stability. Werther offers her a breath of the unknown.

Like many operas, Werther asks us to accept a plot that pushes the bounds of believability. But this performance worked, as any successful production must, because of the chemistry between tenor Francesco Meli’s Werther and mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi’s Charlotte—not an easy thing, since for much of the work the two sing alone, rarely together. Meli and Ganassi are both Italian, and though Meli sang Werther in a distinctly Italianate style (his French diction not always ideal), Ganassi was more idiomatic. They were both lyrical, communicative singers, and by the opera’s end, with Werther collapsed in Charlotte’s arms, the love between them seemed utterly convincing.

I might have wished for a bit more brooding in Meli’s first big moment, his invocation, “O Nature, pleine de grâce, reine du temps et de l’espace.” And though his voice didn’t quite carry over the orchestra in the upper register, Meli grew beautifully into the role of the tormented poet, singing with greater confidence and conviction. His quietest passages were exquisite, too, a model of breath control and finesse. His interpretation of the opera’s most famous aria, “Pourquoi me reveiller,” was a revelation. I have heard the high notes hit with more gusto, more power, but Meli treated the aria as if it were an art song delivered in an intimate setting. He exhibited both delicacy and passion, his voice producing so many distinct colors, shading each line, each note in subtle ways, conveying a whole range of emotion.

This opera may be a vehicle for the lyrical tenor, but the role of the anguished Charlotte, the young girl made to grow up too soon, is just as important. In the marvelous third act—one of the greatest in all of opera—Ganassi’s singing was as gray and bleak as the letters from Werther that she recites. This grand scene, which describes the inability of the heart to resist true love, is filled with beautiful, tormented music, and Ganassi interpreted it skillfully, with the perfect dose of self-doubt and regret.

Charlotte’s sister Sophie is often dismissed as a superfluous character, a bit ridiculous. But Emily Albrink sang the role for all its girlish innocence, her delicate soprano voice most radiant in the second-act “Du gai soleil.” Bass-baritone Julien Robbins’s Bailli was strong, but bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams was more impressive in the role of Albert—a finely wrought characterization that’s tricky to pull off. After all, Albert undergoes a profound transformation as his jealousy of Werther grows—we have to believe that by opera’s end, this once-decent man will become complicit in Werther’s suicide. Some exaggerated gestures aside (and overall, there was a fair bit of old-school overacting from everyone, with characters plunging onto the stage, flinging themselves from here to there, overdoing gestures and reactions), Foster-Williams sang assuredly, cruelly taunting Werther, his voice becoming darker and darker as his character descends into bitterness and rage.

A word, too, about the orchestra, which, aside from a few intonation problems in the “Clair de lune” interlude, sounded ravishing. Judging by last night’s performance, these musicians must love playing for Villaume, who cultivated the ideal atmosphere throughout: earthy, mysterious, lush, transparent. This is repertoire in which Villaume clearly specializes, and I hope he’ll be back to conduct more of it in the future.

Werther runs through May 27 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets ($25 to $300) are available via the Kennedy Center’s website.

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