When I heard that Washington National Opera’s upcoming production of Jules Massenet’s romantic and beautifully tragic opera Werther would be set in the 20th century, I was intrigued. Indeed, based on the famous 18th-century epistolary novel by Goethe, would the tale of a young poet ending his life due to an unrequited love look ridiculously outdated – or, on the contrary, would it acquire new meaning in a modern environment?

Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte and Andrew Foster-Williams as Albert. © Scott Suchman
Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte and Andrew Foster-Williams as Albert.
© Scott Suchman

Given an eccentric 1930s setting by stage director Chris Alexander and Tony-winning designer Michael Yeargan, the production was full of visual, dramatic and vocal contrasts. The idyllic beauty of the German countryside looked even more serene next to the harsh coldness of the grey Bailiff’s house. Werther’s spotless white suit, obviously a symbol of his pure, uncorrupted character, stood out among the beige and grey costumes of Wetzlar’s inhabitants. Lastly, boasting great tonal variety and remarkable breath control, Sonia Ganassi’s darkly sensual Charlotte created an intense chemistry with her beloved Werther, yet made a drastic contrast with her cold-hearted and sarcastic husband Albert, portrayed by young baritone Andrew Foster-Williams.

Not only did this dynamic staging approach, based on the contrast of colors, voices and emotions, emphasize the timeless nature of the battle between the world of romance and the world of pragmatism – it also reminded us that no matter what epoch Werther is set in, it will always be about the ever-modern tragedy of a classical love triangle and its three archetypes looking for love the best way they can.

Indeed, the mean baritone husband (whose biggest crime consists of not keeping cool about his wife’s betrayal), his lucky tenor rival (who wins the wife’s heart without giving much thought to breaking up a family) and finally, the mezzo-soprano wife (who chooses romance over the comforts of married life) are the characters that make the world of Massenet super-modern and almost terrifyingly real.

Even though Werther’s librettists did adapt Goethe’s epistolary novel to the operatic format, its monologue nature still prevailed in the composition, centering the opera around its primary voice, that of Werther, and painting the other two characters with much less musical vividness. Thus, it is inevitable that it is always the leading tenor who gets most attention from the audience and most criticism (or praise) from opera critics. Having handled the enormous challenge of six arias, several duets and plenty of dramatic action with the security of an experienced artist and the noble grandeur of a true romantic hero, internationally acclaimed tenor Francesco Meli delivered a remarkable Werther.

From the subtle falsettos of his Act I ode to nature “O nature, pleine de grâce” to the mellow undertones of his farewell duet with Charlotte in Act IV, Meli’s voice soared with virtuosic flair and breathtaking force. Boasting impeccable sound command and beauty of tone, Meli luxuriated in every nuance of Massenet’s rich, melodious music, performed with precision, dramatic tension and passion by the WNO orchestra under the baton of Emmanuel Villaume. Werther’s signature aria “Pourquoi me reveiller” became the true vocal triumph of the evening, leaving the infantile, clumsy and slightly eccentric youth behind and presenting a new, mature man, crushed by the fatal power of his passion.

As the final notes of the aria faded away, the director’s message came through with more vividness. In our overly materialistic age, Massenet’s Werther is probably more modern and relevant than it has ever been. True, these days people may value life more than they used to in the epoch of Goethe (and a century later, in the epoch of Massenet). Dying for the sake of love may no longer be considered heroic, nor is it glorified by poets and musicians like it used to be.

However, the simple hope of every human being to find pure, unconditional love remains unchanged, and the harder the search gets, the more we value love when it comes to us. And for that reason, whatever epoch Werther is staged in, it will always remain current and will always find its way to human hearts.

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