Muddled Massenet: Directorial excess fatally undermines a fine cast in Lyric Opera’s “Werther”

Mon Nov 12, 2012 at 12:24 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Matthew Polenzani and Sophie Koch in Massenet’s “Werther” at the Lyric Opera. Photo: Dan Rest

Pauvre Massenet.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its first production of Massenet’s Werther in 34 years Sunday afternoon with an inspired cast and first-class musical direction by Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Unfortunately, cast and conductor are saddled with a calamitous revisionist staging by director Francisco Negrin that buries the noble affecting tragedy of the melancholy poet Werther’s ill-fated love for the married Charlotte under a heavily corrosive layer of postmodern symbolism and directorial excess.

I caught this production when it premiered in San Francisco in 2010. And while Negrin has dropped some of the ridiculous elements, enough intrusive director-itis idiocy remains to fatally hobble Sunday’s otherwise vocally stellar opening performance. It’s regrettable that Lyric has elected to mount Werther—-Massenet’s most ineffably beautiful score—for the first time in over three decades with the most misguided and off-putting production seen on a Chicago opera stage in several years.

Forget any picturesque ideas of Biedermeier Germany. Louis Désiré’s set is a two-level affair with Werther’s tiny cell beneath with bed, table and pictures of Charlotte. Video of his beloved play on a wall as he fantasizes.

The main unit set above is contained within a large stainless-steel basin. Instead of the usual cozy 19th-century domesticity, Charlotte’s home is a confounding assemblage of stacked crates and boxes. The central set is set off by stark towering bare trees with summer and fall represented by drop-down pictures of leaves.

Désiré’s sets are at least visually striking for all their chilly style, but it is Negrin’s interventionist direction that fatally dooms this staging. In his justification in the program, Negrin says that he decided to “stage the music rather than the libretto.” So we get his conceit that the romance with Charlotte is just Werther’s fantasy and on and on. Like every director who arrogantly substitutes his own bad ideas for the actual opera, Negrin can justify his approach at great length. I think most people would prefer Massenet’s version.

Instead we get the Bailiff, Charlotte’s kindly father, here portayed as an abusive drunk who slaps one of the small children in the opening scene. Charlotte reads Werther’s letters not to herself in a soliloquy, but to her husband Albert who tears them up.

Negrin has a perverse knack for destroying the most foolproof dramatic momensts. The climactic confrontation between Werther and Charlotte is especially bizarre with Charlotte lying in a bed (later joined by Albert) with Werther on a ledge facing away from her; the pair never even look at each other as they pour out their most intense feelings about their forbidden love.

Would you like to hear about the denouement wherein Werther is joined by two identical doubles who all shoot themselves simultaneously as Charlotte sings her final outpouring to one of the dead Werthers while the real poet wanders around the stage? I didn’t think so. As one disgruntled audience member said at intermission, “They would have been better off doing a concert version.”

It’s a testament to the talent and professionalism of the cast and Davis that they soldiered on amid this sorry mess, delivering the musical end in laudable style.

Making her Lyric Opera bow, Sophie Koch provided the evening’s most memorable moments as Charlotte. Rarely will one hear this role sung with such idiomatic Gallic style or with such dramatic intensity. The lovely French mezzo possesses a pure-toned yet ample voice and managed to carve out a touching and vividly characterized portrayal of the conflicted Charlotte. Her letter scene and impassioned singing in the final act were simply riveting. Let’s have this gifted singer back soon in a production more worthy of her talents.

As the doomed poet, Matthew Polenzani took awhile to warm up Sunday, sounding a bit dry-toned at the bottom end in Werther’s Invocation to Nature. While one wanted more tonal refinement at times, the tenor soon found his vocal footing, singing well with a rush of surging passion in J’aurais sur ma poitrine. He delivered an ardent and elegant Pourquoi me reveiller, and matched Koch’s intensity in a galvanic account of their Act III duet.

Craig Verm made an auspicious company debut as Charlotte’s bourgeois husband Albert. Negrin’s bludgeoning concept prevented much in-depth characterization but the Texas-born baritone sang with a robust tone and textual sensitivity, making the character more rounded than the usual stiff dullard.

Ryan Center artist Kiri Deonarine shone as Sophie, Charlotte’s cheerful younger sister, dispelling the gloom with radiant renderings of her two lilting arias.

Philip Kraus did what he could with Negrin’s cynical conception of the Bailiff as child-abusing drunk. As Schmidt and Johann, the Bailiff’s bibulous friends, John Irvin and David Govertsen provided welcome light-hearted moments in this relentlessly depressing production. In their abrogated appearances in this staging Will Liverman and Cecilia Hall had no chance to make an impact as the contrasting pair of young lovers Brühlmann and Kätchen.

Sir Andrew Davis drew quite glorious playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra and showed his first-class bona fides in Massenet, a composer we hear much too rarely in Chicago. Davis showed an idiomatic touch bringing out the Gallic elegance as well as the dark lyricism and restless drama of this magnificent score.

Werther runs through November 26.

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2 Responses to “Muddled Massenet: Directorial excess fatally undermines a fine cast in Lyric Opera’s “Werther””

  1. Posted Nov 16, 2012 at 11:45 am by Opéra Chanteuse

    Spot on review.

    Davis, for once, knew what he was doing.

  2. Posted Nov 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm by Philip Kraus

    I tried to get Negrin to moderate the characterization of the Baileff; to my mind, there is nothing in the music to suggest an abusive drunkard. I tried to keep him jovial and sweet, as he is written.

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