Werther: – Review of Minneosta Opera production from the 2011/2012 season.

At the kind invitation of the Minnesota opera I attended a full dress rehearsal at the Ordway in St. Paul prior to opening night 01/28/2011.

Now this is a rehearsal, so it is understandable that singers might save their voices a little.  Also there are a lot of potentially distracting activities, people at computer screens etc, that need to be taken into consideration.  However the performance was of a standard that I was absorbed and drawn into, and these distractions quickly tuned out.  There were no interruptions for problems and the opera played right through.

This is a French romantic opera, by Jules Massenet written in the late 19th century.  Jules Massenet was influenced by Richard Wagner, especially in matters of the unbroken musical line and the orchestra playing a key role in illuminating the story line.  However the musical idiom is unabashedly French on not German. I will return to this later.

For those not familiar with the opera here is a brief synopsis courtesy of the Metropolitan News: -

ACT I. Wetzlar, near Frankfurt, 1780s. Though it is July, the widowed Bailiff teaches his younger children a Christmas carol in the garden of their house. Their progress is watched with amusement by two neighbors, Schmidt and Johann. They ask for Charlotte, the eldest daughter, who is engaged to Albert. In his absence, the Bailiff tells them, she will be escorted to the local ball that night by a young visiting poet, Werther, whom they find uncongenial. As the friends go off to supper and the Bailiff goes into the house, Werther arrives. He rhapsodizes on the beauty of the evening and watches unseen as Charlotte cuts bread and butter for the children’s supper. When the party has left for the ball and the Bailiff has gone to join his friends at the tavern, Albert returns unexpectedly. Disappointed at not finding Charlotte, he promises her sister Sophie he will return in the morning. As the moon rises, Werther and Charlotte return. He has fallen in love with her, but his declaration is cut short when the Bailiff passes by, observing that Albert has returned. Despite his despair, Werther urges Charlotte not to break her promise to marry Albert.

ACT II. Three months later, Charlotte and Albert, now married, walk contentedly across the town square on their way to church, followed by Werther. Albert tries to comfort the youth, and Sophie also attempts to cheer him up, but when Charlotte comes out of the church, he speaks of their first meeting; disturbed, she tells him he must leave Wetzlar until Christmas. Werther contemplates suicide, and when Sophie interrupts him, he rushes away. As Charlotte consoles the tearful girl, Albert realizes that Werther must be in love with his wife.

ACT III. Alone at home on Christmas Eve, Charlotte rereads the dejected letters written to her by Werther. While she prays for strength, he suddenly appears. Charlotte tries to remain calm and asks him to read to her from his translation of Ossian. Werther chooses a passage where the poet foresees his own death, and when Charlotte begs him to stop, he realizes she returns his love. But she runs from his embrace with a final farewell, and Werther leaves, resolved to die. Albert enters, surprised to find Charlotte distraught, and when a message arrives from Werther asking to borrow Albert’s pistols, her reaction convinces him of her love for Werther. He makes her give the pistols to the servant herself, but when Albert has gone she hurries off, praying she may reach Werther in time.

ACT IV. Charlotte arrives at Werther’s quarters to find him mortally wounded. She declares her love, and he begs forgiveness. As he dies, the voices of the children outside are heard singing their Christmas carol.
– courtesy of Opera News

In essence this a classic opera of conflicted love and duty.

Werther the philosopher, writer,  translator and also with brooding depressive tendencies, combined with obsessional character traits.

The hinge is Charlotte, the eldest daughter of the Le Bailli, who has had to substitute for her dead mother to a large family of younger children, her brothers and sisters.  She has promised her mother she will marry Albert, possibly an industrialist, but I doubt there is evidence for this .  So in essence it is an arranged marriage.

Now before the wedding she is pursued by the obsessive love of Werther.  In her youth she is flattered but also conflicted.  Duty wins, she marries Albert, but Werther is still in the picture.  Albert is understanding but Charlotte banishes him for six odd months.  Again there is unresolved conflict of which Albert is at first sympathetic.

Charlotte’s younger sister Sophie, a very presentable catch herself,  and clearly has feelings for Werther.  However in his obsession for Charlotte, he is blind to them.

So Christmas comes, and Charlotte, though conflicted, duty to her husband wins, and Werther sees suicide as the only way to release the two of them.

Werther requests to borrow Albert’s pistols for a “long journey.”  Albert loosing his sympathies, enhances Charlotte’s conflict by making her hand over the pistols to Werther’s messenger.

Wracked with guilt, she runs to Werther to prevent the tragedy she foresees.  Too late, Werther has fired the gun and is dying.  In a prolonged death scene ridden with guilt, Charlotte blames herself.  Werther absolves her and they declare their love as he dies.  It is left to the viewer to imagine  whether Charlotte’s grief and guilt are assuaged and she lives in a happy marriage with Albert, or the whole thing dissolves on the rocks of guilt and missed opportunities.

In this production we are treated to some gorgeous and fabulous singing.  James Valenti, tenor in the leading role as Werther has, a gorgeous smooth mid and high register.  He can become covered in the lower register, but that is a lot due to Massenet’s scoring.  Interestingly Massenet later rewrote the part of Werther for the baritone voice.  James Valenti’s first entry was a little tentative with some pitch problems.  However he soon pulled it together and did not put a foot wrong after that.  Hopefully his problem at entry will be overcome by opening night.

There was real chemistry between James Valenti and the leading Mezzo soprano, in the role of Charlotte, Roxana Constantinescu.  She has a gorgeous “Straussian” Mezzo voice and delighted us with her agility and power.  In addition to fine signing from these principals, their acting and stage craft were of a very high order.

Special mention must be made of Angela Mortellaro, who sang Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister.  She is artist in residence at MSO.  Apart from a wonderful stage presence, she was an entirely believable older teen,  she has a powerful clear toned soprano voice that is a smooth as silk.  Watch her star rise!

Also I must give high praise to the children’s chorus.  In act one they sung in that dreadful shouting lusty fashion, that I so frequently have chastised American music teachers for.  This was a perfect parody.  After correction from their father, they sang in with a clear voiced sound, with a perfect blend of head and chest voice.  Well done!  I have to say the entire cast gave a very good account of themselves.

The opera was conducted by Christoph Campestrini.  The orchestra played without a sour note.  This opera is heavily scored for lower brass and woodwinds.  They all rose to the challenge.

So how was the total production?  Let me say right away that everyone was on the same page with this production.  I would encourage all lovers of opera, and those wanting to get acquainted, to go to this production.  I would bet you will be adsorbed and entertained by the production and have a good evening out.  However, it is legitimate to have questions about the page.

The director Kevin Newbury, has chosen to use this conflict of love, duty, brooding and depression as a metaphor for the conflict of the rise of the industrial age.  If you don’t believe me watch this video.

Now he has this large projection of an early 20th century industrial scene projected throughout.  I found this a most dominating and distracting element.  I suppose it is valid to look at the opera this way.  However Goethe wrote the story in 1774, when only Albion was becoming precociously industrialized.  Admittedly by the premier of this opera in 1892, the USA and Germany were well on the road to industrialization with increasing industrial output.  That said I doubt thoughts of the problems of the industrial age were in Massenet’s head when he composed this score.

This is a French romantic opera, with long lines and lush scoring.  What we got was a very angular musical production, that sounded Nordic with hints of the New Viennese School which had not yet ushered in the “Age of Ugliness” to music.

Part of this effect musically is due to the conditions at the Ordway.  The orchestra pit is far too small.  Now you have to have the necessary woodwinds brass and percussion as they are vital to the score.  So the strings get short changed, which seriously changes the balance of the sound the composer intended.  I understand the Ordway Center is due for a makeover, but I don’t believe changes to the theater and in particular the orchestra pit are part of it.  I hope I’m wrong about this.  If not, it is something that needs serious attention.

Even so, I think Massenet’s lovely long lines were made angular to fit the image conjured by the industrial projection.  I played a performance under Michel Plasson on DVD again this morning before writing this review.  In France Michel Plasson is considered the doyen of French Romantic opera.  Plasson’s lines are much more beguiling, long and languid.  The sound lush with the glow of romanticism.  For me Plasson’s way with the score is to be much preferred.  I won’t go so far as to say that the MSO interpretation is invalid, but different from the approach I prefer.

I make an issue of this because I love Opera and have a nice collection of Opera on Blue Ray disc and growing.  However many are ruined by the egos and hubris of the current crop of opera stage directors.

We need another generation of conductors with bigger egos, to make the stage directors conform to the aesthetic and musical idiom of the composition, and not the other way round.

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