In Francisco Negrin’s production of Massenet’s Werther, currently at the Lyric Opera, the opera’s first scene appears through a semi-transparent screen upon which an image of a row of houses is projected. Then the screen rises, and we enter fully into the dream.

© Robert Kusel
© Robert Kusel

Werther, whose story is based on Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, recounts the adventures of a hopelessly romantic young man who refuses to give up his love for a woman despite her apparent lack of interest and her engagement to another man. Negrin responds to the mostly epistolary form the novel takes by framing the beginning of the story as a fantasy (or a reminiscence?) of Werther’s. The main stage is about four feet higher than usual, allowing for a lower space at the front of the stage that serves as Werther’s bedroom. During the overture, we see the dreamer in bed, surrounded by books and pinned-up portraits of women. When the action proper begins, a schoolteacher is trying to coral a group of children in a schoolyard, and Negrin’s staging – with Werther at front, and the schoolyard scene unfolding behind and above him, through a veil – makes it seem as though Werther is dreaming up the story that we will see, and dreaming it as a story that emerges from the world of children.

The music, too, is appealingly poppy and songlike, though complexly layered. Massenet, writing in the late 19th century, finds ways to have his Wagnerian cake and eat it too, creating a continuous musical texture that manages to accommodate full arias. Sophie Koch and Kiri Deonarine, who play the two sisters Charlotte and Sophie, are excellent, with voices that suit their characters’ temperaments; the men are less even, though Matthew Polenzani as Werther is quite fine. I thought during the first two acts that my seat, on the floor and near the stage, deprived me of a full orchestral sound. Yet this improved in the last act, with the orchestra rising to the occasion of the opera’s gorgeous closing numbers. I’m forced to conclude that the thin sound pervading the first half of the show was caused not by my place in the hall but by the orchestra’s slowness in finding its feet.

Negrin’s use of video projection is welcome at an opera house that still tends overwhelmingly to the traditional in its stagings, yet it unfortunately amounts to little. More striking than the semi-live video projections and echoes of onstage figures are the static images that are screened in front of and behind the action: leafy mosaics denoting seasons, the line of charcoal houses mentioned above, and – in the last act – the same houses, lifting into the air.

But Negrin’s vision of a hallucinated Werther, though it nicely inherits the novel’s subjective mood, fails to make sense in operatic space. The stage is cluttered with suitcases, Werther’s room, and floating screens, such that the principal action is confined to a narrow stretch of space. This architecture is repeated for each of the opera’s four acts. An opera production doesn’t need multiple lavish sets to be great, but Werther’s staging, by trying to generate visual interest by putting as much as possible onstage, is dramaturgically a non-answer. The architecture of the stage doesn’t amplify the characters’ dimensions or utterances, but stifles them instead in its clutter.