Some always look to popular culture whenever a troubled youth commits suicide. They condemn everything from video games and heavy metal to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and movies like the1988 black comedy Heathers. In 1774 everyone’s whipping boy was Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Goethe’s fictional troubled youth effected the world in ways the flesh and blood Kurt Cobain, for example, never did. From fashion to deportment to the concept of masculinity itself, Werther challenged societal norms. Men adopted his dress, emulated his poetry, unabashedly cried in public, and even created a vogue for suicide. By the time Jules Massenet composed his opera in 1887, the novel had long ceased to be controversial. What remained was a psychologically nuanced account of obsession and passions thwarted.
Goethe puts the reader inside his unreliable narrator’s head. Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Werther restores the novel’s psychological complicity by framing the action as the poet’s fevered, dying flashback, opening in freeze frame with Werther facing out on a raised platform center stage, jamming a revolver into his left side. The shot has been fired, its concussion blasting apart the walls and ceiling of his room and flinging chairs about the stage and into the plaster. His fragmented room becomes a canvas for fragmented memories, walls and ceiling deeply scored with gouts of dark paint laid on thickly with a palette knife. Black and white images, still and moving, mostly of Charlotte, unspool and repeat across them. This expressionistic cinematic dreamscape parallels and contrasts the action onstage. Werther never leaves. From time to time other characters wander into a scene oblivious and superfluous to the action. And, in a striking touch, Charlotte’s pleated tea dress fades from its initial emerald green to a duller green to pure white in the final acts as death approaches and she fades from memory.
Diction and pronunciation help to properly place the voice in French opera as the recordings of old school singers prove. Alex Richardson jumped in barely two weeks before opening night when Joseph Kaiser fell to back surgery. Though Richardson had sung Werther before, he could have benefited from more attention to the language. The opening apostrophe to Nature found his voice tight and dry. It eventually warmed and expanded, allowing him to let loose with some impressive A sharps. He also made effective use of mixed voice and mezza voce. However notes in the passaggio, like the the throttled G flat closing Act I, would have benefited from better pronunciation. Otherwise, Richardson was an anguished, bipolar Werther with the stamina and focus to remain on stage and not flag.
Sandra Piques Eddy is an outstanding lyric mezzo with a rich, plummy voice, evenly and smoothly produced, and responsive to whatever demands she makes of it including an appropriate use of chest voice in her moving Act III tour de force. As Sophie admits, she might be young but she knows “the reason for many things”. This awareness raises her admonitions to others above the flighty and superficial. Rachele Gilmore embraces that awareness. Her Sophie is no clueless soubrette. She sees and understands what goes on around her. In this production, she’s the one who delivers the pistols to Werther, giving him a knowing farewell kiss. Gilmore’s flawless coloratura has clarity, weigh, and substance which abets this more rounded interpretation of her character.
John Hancock brought stature and a solid baritone to Albert. He economically limned the character’s trajectory from unconditional love to the bitter realization that Charlotte loves another. James Demler’s Bailli was crusty but lovingly paternal. Jon Jurgens and David McFerrin were the epitome of the raffish, cigarette-smoking tipplers, Johan and Schmidt. The children of Voices Boston had much more to do than sing in the first and last act. Their attention and commitment never wavered.
Boston has an embarrassment of riches in its many freelancers. Most of the best were in the orchestra, allowing conductor David Angus to make it an unsung fifth lead. The low strings in particular were notable for underpinning the score with a rich and darkly-hued tone. Annie Rabbat’s solos also stood out for her masterful production of a singing, crystalline tone. Kenneth Radnofsky’s haunting alto saxophone made its affecting presence known in more than the Air des larmes. Angus also deserves credit for discovering a vocal passage of about two minutes following Act IV’s kiss, while perusing the online copy of the manuscript score. Never before performed, this was the only time the lovers sang in unison.
Massenet’s critics dismissed him as a sentimentalist and, in emasculating terms, as “Mademoiselle Wagner”. Had they the benefit of a production as insightful and persuasive as the BLO’s, however, they might have realized that Werther paints a portrait of obsessive and destructive passion as psychologically valid and complex as anything in Wagner.
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