Some people see opera characters as overblown exaggerations, but to me, the great thing about opera is that it’s about people you encounter in real life. Bellini’s “Norma” is about a woman who finds out her partner is cheating on her with her own personal assistant. Verdi’s “Rigoletto” is about a political leader who abuses his power to seduce hordes of women and gets away with it. And Massenet’s “Werther,” based on Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” is about one of those annoying people who persists in nursing an unrealistic crush on an unattainable woman to the point of obsession. Do I know Werther? I used to date Werther.
I therefore find Massenet’s opera — which opened at the Washington National Opera on Saturday night — at once credible and irritating, and I tend to have very little sympathy with Werther as a romantic hero. This puts me at odds with German cultural tradition, since when the novel appeared in the late 18th century, it sparked a wave of copycat suicides. It also puts me at odds with most stage directors, including Chris Alexander, whose production has already bowed at Opera Australia and the Opera of Montreal. Alexander played the story, itself, very straight: Werther sees Charlotte, knows she is The One and pulls her right into his obsessive fantasy — sorry, true love — in spite of the fact that Charlotte is engaged to, and subsequently married to, someone else.
Whatever you think of the story, Massenet sure kitted it with some nice music. This composer has long been somewhat overlooked as just another pretty, even sugary, face. It’s now fashionable to recognize the substance and the dramatic instinct behind the sweetness, and I’m happy to go along with this particular fashion. And WNO assembled a very respectable cast, led by Francesco Meli, an Italian tenor making his company debut with a light, lyric, supple voice that he used adroitly, without pushing or forcing, and with a real sense of French style and flair. His only real flaw was that his topmost notes tended to be small and tight, but he offered plenty to get excited about, even in his protracted death scene — although Werther’s failure to die after collapsing again and again and again, bleeding from a gunshot wound through the heart, drew actual titters from the audience.
The mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi, by contrast, did her best work on the top notes; her low notes didn’t quite have the heft to make a strong effect as Charlotte, although she sang quite well. The costumes, by Sabrina Barila, did her no favors, with mid-calf skirts and a curly bob that made her look more like Werther’s mother than the object of his affections. Emily Albrink, a former Domingo-Cafritz young artist, returned as her sister Sophie with just the right degree of charming teenage artlessness.
Julien Robbins was a pleasant placeholder as the bailiff, the father of these young women and a passel of other children, very well embodied by members of the WNO Children’s Chorus. Kenneth Kellogg, a current Domingo-Cafritz young artist, was one of the best among the bit roles, and Andrew Foster-Williams sang solidly and was appropriately pompous as Charlotte’s husband, Albert.
As for the staging, Alexander offered only a couple of innovations. One was that the action was transferred to the 1920s: A kind of change that strikes many opera-lovers as acceptable, because it’s innocuous, like changing the color palette on your computer desktop. Indeed, Michael Yeargan’s sets had a kind of gentle background nostalgic flavor. My companion and I debated whether the action had been transferred to North America (the wheat field, the overalls, the church with hymn numbers out front) or France (the ornate door frames, the massive cupboards of Charlotte and Albert’s home). Most telling, alas, was that it didn’t matter; the shift was purely cosmetic.
The other innovation came at the end of the third act, when Werther reappears in Charlotte’s life, declares his love (again), is rebuffed (again), stomps out and then sends a note to Charlotte and Albert saying he’s going on a long journey and would love to borrow their pistols. Albert, who’s gotten wise to the situation, orders Charlotte to send the pistols. Charlotte does so and then tries to follow, hoping she won’t be too late.
There ensues a musical entr’acte (conducted with the requisite ardor by Emmanuel Villaume), which here played out beneath some effective stage business: Charlotte kept trying to go out the door and kept being prevented by the arrival of guests coming over for a Christmas dinner. You could feel the tension mounting between Charlotte’s growing panic and the social entanglements that bound her, as normal life asserted itself over the half-fantasy of Werther’s ardor: He couldn’t really kill himself, could he, while there were guests to greet, gifts to receive, small talk to make, business as usual?
If Werther succeeds in winning over Charlotte, it’s partly by presenting himself as a contrast to the small routines of newlywed bourgeois life. In my opinion, Alexander could have played this up a lot more, but this entr’acte was the most effective piece of staging of the whole evening, turning the thumbscrews until Charlotte finally jumped up from the table and fled.
“Werther” continues through May 27 at the Washington National Opera.