Review: “Werther” Re-invented, Yet Again – Francisco Negrin’s New Production at San Francisco Opera, September 15, 2010

Massenet’s “Werther” is the sly and theatrical reinvention  of Johann Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers), which was Goethe’s sly and wildly successful reinvention of an allegedly autobiographical episode in his young lovelife. Perhaps at no time in history has a jilted suitor created such a successful franchise as consolation for his rebuff.

[Below: Werther (Ramon Vargas) is obsessed with thoughts of a woman for whom he has taken a strong fancy; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

A San Francisco Opera audience, not all of whom seemed on the same wavelength as the production director and set designer, experienced yet another sly and theatrical reinvention of Goethe’s tongue-in-cheek account of a young man’s obsessive love at first sight. Observing a woman performing a commonplace chore for her young siblings, Werther decides she must be “his”, aggressively pursues her,  and discovering that she has a life separate from his fantasies, commits suicide.

In 18th century Europe, such a display of self-destructive sentiment was without precedent. The contemporaneous reports of a rash of suicides following the publication of Die Leiden have not been totally disqualified.

In the 21st century, with our heightened sensitivity to obsessive behaviors, and long experience with restraining orders and other defenses against the Werthers among us, Goethe’s hero can been seen as a rather creepier personality than he did in the late 18th or 19th.

Yes, the character of Werther has been studied in Psych 101 classes. But Massenet and his librettists showered the Werther character with some of the most effusive and beautiful tenor arias in the operatic repertory, in sufficient abundance to assure that both lyric and spinto tenors would be attracted to it. Nor would Massenet neglect the vocal lines of the object of Werther’s affection, making Charlotte one of the most attractive and pyschologically interesting of mezzo-soprano roles. With a first rank tenor and mezzo, one can perform the opera just as Massenet intended and it will usually prove to be a very satisfying evening.

Staging the Sorrows: Goethe, Massenet and Negrin

In Goethe’s Die Leiden we have only the evidence of the Werther’s letters to a close friend that a local official investigating the suicide has organized in chronological order, with occasional supplementary information from that functionary about the forensic details and the testimony from the persons whose Christmastide was so memorably disrupted.

For the story to work in an operatic setting, Massenet and his librettists changed the point of view from Goethe’s inventory of Werther’s letters and the deliberations of the death scene investigator to the audience’s point of view. We in the audience become the observers of townfolk in this small community near the Hessian town of Wetzlar (about 50 miles driving distance  from Frankfurt on the Autobahn) – particularly the reactions of Charlotte, Albert and Sophie to Werther’s interactions with them.

Mexican Director Francisco Negrin, who is a strong advocate for the opera itself, has re-conceptualized how the opera should be presented. Obviously, Massenet’s four acts, libretto and musical score determine the opera’s temporal flow. But Negrin, in consultation with French Production Designer Louis Desire, Conductor Emmanuel Villaume and key members of the cast, approached the opera in an unconventional way. (For my review of a previous Negrin and Desire collaboration, see: Christine Brewer, Paul Groves Lead Elegantly Sung “Alceste”: Santa Fe – August 1, 2009.)

Although the insightful psychological presentation of the story by Massenet’s librettists, Edoard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann, reinforced by the Massenet’s Wagner-influenced orchestration, has always seemed a strength of the opera, Negrin deconstructs the opera into what I would characterize as three realms – the surreal world of Werther’s disordered mind, the dreamworld of Charlotte’s erotic thoughts and the “real” world of the Albert, Sophie and the townspeople.

The deconstruction occurs by creating a two level set. The main stage represents the town. To the audience’s left, there is a stack of packing boxes. (Negrin explains these represent the estate of Charlotte’s deceased mother – the lady who forced Charlotte to agree to marry Albert – and to symbolize as well Albert moving into Charlotte’s life.)

In the center there is the abstract representation of a small grove of trees, above which there will be framed pictures to let us know whether it is the season of green leaves, of fall color, or of barren winter.   To the audience’s right, there is a plaza area where different community events – picnics, drinking bouts, flirting – take place. The entire upper stage has a low fence of what seems to be stainless steel. Blurry photographs of the town’s old houses in the different seasons usually are seen above this upper stage.

The lower stage is Werther’s room and the place where he collects images of Charlotte, and will at one point use red paint to emblazon her name on a black wall. He will occasionally have her moving image transmitted to a big screen TV behind his bed.

[Below: Werther (Ramon Vargas) has painted Charlotte’s name on the wall of his room, as people of the community go about their business above him; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

There is, of course, a difference between delusions and dreams, and Negrin quite vividly displays Charlotte’s unspoken frustration with her duty to Albert and her mother’s memory when she is awake. But Negrin allows us to observe what she dreams about. Such a dream demonstrates to us, that she subconsciously and erotically welcomes the attention she is receiving from Werther. A bed appears out of the wall at audience right and positions itself in center stage.

As Charlotte  and Albert go to sleep, Ramon Vargas’ Werther appears in her dreamworld along with two identically dressed torch-carrying doppelgaengers, singing Pourquoi me reveiller, the most passionate of Werther’s stream of luxuriously melodic arias, from the head of the bed she is sharing with Albert.

[Below: As Charlotte (Alice Coote, in bed) sleeps, she dreams of Werther (Ramon Vargas, standing on headboard) appearing at her bed; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

With the world of Werther’s delusions and Charlotte’s subconscious desires established, it then becomes Negrin’s task to separate what in Massenet’s opera belongs to these two realms and what constitutes the day to day reality. Obviously, the townsfolk – the non-singing role of the pastor, the bailiff (Christian Van Horn), Kaetchen (Susannah Biller), Bruehlmann (Austin Kness), Schmidt (Robert MacNeil) and Johann (Bojan Knezevic), all of whom provide the “local color” – belong in it.

But observable reality represented in this production is enhanced by the substantially increased importance of the two lead comprimario roles – Albert (Brian Mulligan) and Sophie (Heidi Stober). Early in the opera, we get a hint of Sophie’s infatuation with Werther.

[Below: Sophie (Heidi Stober) has fallen in love with Werther; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

That is a plot device, permitting Sophie, anxious that her would-be boyfriend attend an event, to enter Werther’s private accommodations, and seeing all the evidence that Werther is a dangerous person, shares the information with an already suspicious Albert.

Then, in one of the Negrin’s many masterstrokes in this production, Brian Mulligan’s  Albert inspects Werther’s rooms and brings written evidence to Charlotte, who sings her “Letter Song” with Albert present, himself going through the letters one by one. When Coote finished the Letter Song, the first ovation of the night was heard – I suspect not just appreciation for Coote’s affecting singing, but also for Mulligan’s extraordinary evocation (presented, of course, in pantomime, since this is not a scene in which Massenet expected him to be present) of Albert’s increasing discomfort with the situation.

[Below: Albert (Brian Mulligan, left) reads the letters that Werther has sent his wife, Charlotte (Alice Coote); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Werther and Vargas at the War Memorial

Massenet’s “Werther” was first performed by the San Francisco Opera in 1935 (the year of the world premiere of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”), yet by its first performance of 2010 had only clocked 20 performances at the War Memorial Opera House, with Ramon Vargas only the sixth tenor to sing Werther in the 75 year history of the opera at the San Francisco company. But the five tenors with whom he is now linked historically would fit comfortably on a list of the great tenor voices of that 75 year period: Tito Schipa (once in 1935), Cesare Valletti (once in 1953), Giacomo Aragall (5 times in 1975), Jose Carreras (6 in 1978) and Alfredo Kraus (7 in 1985),

I saw Valletti in the 1960s in Italian roles, and Aragall, Carreras and Kraus as Werther. Aragall and Carreras, both spinto tenors, had perfect-sized voices for the large War Memorial Opera House with its open orchestra pit and Massenet’s full-sized orchestra.  Kraus, a lyric tenor, emphasized the role’s subtleties, and, paired with Renata Scotto’s Charlotte, the beauty of Massenet’s melodic line.

Having heard Vargas sing a heavier Verdi role in Houston’s George Brown Theatre (see Vargas, Podles Brilliant in Puzzle Box “Ballo”: Houston – November 2, 2007) and lighter Donizetti fare in San Francisco (see Vargas Shines Bright in Stellar S. F. “L’Elisir d’Amore” – November 9, 2008), this provided me an opportunity to make my own judgement on the debate of whether Vargas, as his voice matures, should move farther into the lighter roles of the spinto category. I found his performance beautifully exhilirating, full-throated, elegant, a worthy expression of the French style, perfect for Werther. Even so, I believe that Werther defines the upper limit of the weight of roles he should be assaying in large theaters like the War Memorial.

Although Alice Coote has appeared at San Francisco Opera previously in Handel’s “Alcina” and Mozart’s “Idomeneo”, my travels caused me to miss the first and a back injury requiring her withdrawal from the latter, so I was seeing her for the first time. I thought she  commendably sang Charlotte’s music. In Negrin’s staging and Desire’s costuming, she is deliberately portrayed as rather dowdy, a woman whose involvement in the romantic delusions of another person was something she never imagined would happen.

For me the breakout performances were by Mulligan, whose Valentin in Faust I had appreciated earlier this year (see Racette Ravishing, Relyea Riveting in San Francisco “Faust” – June 5, 2010) and Stober, who was one of a large constellation of stars in Handel’s “Xerxes” in Houston (“Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010). Both demonstrated their comfort on the War Memorial stage, where I have every expectation of seeing both in future seasons.

At the end of the performance, there were some boos when the director and set designer took their first night bows, although it was clear that the audience also included strong support for the production team. One lady near me said, “just wait until the critics have their way with this”. Although I did exchange pleasantries with my colleagues in the electronic and print media, I did not ask any other reviewer’s opinion of the performance or production, and deliberately have not read even a scrap of others’ comments before posting this. But I do have some strong opinions about Negrin’s take on “Werther”.

I have no trouble in demolishing the pretensions of some of the concept directors who have given regietheatre its “Eurotrash” nickname, and who have tried the patience of audiences who feel that tickets are too expensive to waste on silly “over the top” staging of familiar works. However, the best of the modern concept designers  bring insightful new ways of thinking about esteemed works in the operatic repertoire.

“Werther’s” musical coloration might seem a bit offputting to some contemporary opera goers. Its  prelude encompasses music that reminds me of 1940s film noir pyschodramas, written a half century later by composers who might well have recalled their Massenet (and those descending octave chords will occur again at stressful moments), and its first act dallies in the rather uninspiring day in the life of a rural Wetzlar suburb. A novice to the opera will have to take on faith, that as you get into it, the opera will yield its beauties. Those beauties will be worth the effort, even if one does not find the story particularly appealing.

But Team Negrin shows that the work that Team Massenet constructed from Goethe’s Die Leiden is conducive to the mix of the real and surreal in which some of the modern concept directors have become so adept. The result is transformative.

How does this reviewer “have his way” with Negrin’s production? Noting that this is a co-production with the Lyric Opera in Chicago, to be shown there in 2012, I am awaiting the announcement of the performance dates so that I can make my Chicago hotel reservations. For those able to attend any of the five remaining performances in San Francisco, I recommend the production highly.