Nearly 150 years after Goethe wrote Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), itʼs almost impossible to appreciate the novelʼs influence and impact. The scandalous allure of a star-crossed extramarital affair made it an instant bestseller, and the title characterʼs lovesick suicide inspired copycat behavior by at least ten readers. When Massenet adapted it for his 1892 opera Werther, the material was a perfect fit for the overwrought emotionalism that had become a fashionable reaction to the intellectual rigors of the Enlightenment.

But what relevance does any of that have now? Sexual infidelity is common, and suicide is seen as tragically misguided, not noble. German director Willy Decker approached the problem by reimagining the opera as a Hitchcock-like study in obsession, filled with disturbing psychological undercurrents. Rather than romantic, Wertherʼs forbidden love for Charlotte is like a black hole that sucks in everyone and everything around it, with no possibility for escape.

Wolfgang Gussmanʼs deceptively simple set traps the characters from the outset. The floor is steeply pitched toward the audience, and sliding panels reinforce the claustrophobic effect of a bisected stage – the back half bare and open to changing moods of weather, the front half a tightly angled living room where the singers are often squeezed into a dimly lit corner. Werther also spends a lot of time pinned against walls or dashing about aimlessly, like a rat in a maze. The production opens with him gazing skyward during the Prélude, fingering the gun that he will later use to kill himself. Before a single note has been sung, the sense of doomed inevitability is palpable. 

This atmosphere is reinforced by the acting. With the exception of the lively, mischievous childrenʼs group in the first act, the singers spend much of their time in slow motion, or frozen in moments of abject despair. The rare moments of affection are brief and bleak – Charlotte constantly tearing herself from Wertherʼs arms, or the two running at each other with outstretched arms, only to miss one another instead of embracing. The strongest show of endearment is for a large framed portrait of Charlotteʼs dead mother, which is treated like a religious icon, at least at the start. By the end of the second act itʼs become a totem and even a weapon, suggesting a mother fixation that extends even to Charlotteʼs betrothed, Albert. 

The cast holds up remarkably well under all this. Štěpánka Pučálková (Charlotte), Slávka Zámečníková (Sophie) and Jiří Rajniš (Albert) all turned in strong singing performances at the premiere, and Peter Berger (Werther) was exceptionally good, growing stronger over the course of the evening and packing every phrase with passion and anguish. Zdeněk Plech added some ballast as a serious-minded Bailiff, and his drinking buddies Ivo Hrachovec and Václav Sibera (Johann and Schmidt, respectively), popping in and out of the frame like characters from Hergé, lightened the load with some nice bits of physical comedy. 

The original version of this well-traveled production premiered at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam in 1996 and has since been staged in a number of European cities, including Rome, Geneva, Ghent/Antwerp, Frankfurt and Barcelona. The Prague revival is a worthy addition, with the geometry of the set and strong color contrasts in the costuming carefully executed, and a small but charming contribution from the Kühn Childrenʼs Choir. The production also benefits from having Artistic Director Petr Kofroň on the podium. His metier is modern music, which at first blush made him seem an unlikely choice for a 19th-century romantic staple. But along with a crisp, richly expressive rendition of the score, Kofroň brought a contemporary burnish that added a musical dimension to the stagingʼs updated sensibilities.

Still, it was hard to shake the sensation that Massenetʼs music was going in one direction, and Deckerʼs dramatization in another. Whatever oneʼs tastes, romance and psychodrama are a tough fit. But Decker is not one for neat, tidy arrangements, at least in this production. Symbols come and go, entire scenes (like Charlotte and Albertʼs wedding) materialize and just as suddenly disappear, and the stage is constantly cluttered with detritus like loose papers and overturned chairs. As an interior portrait, itʼs compelling – a mind in disarray, a hand-clutching escape from the opening moments. Love may be resplendent in the pit, but onstage itʼs a one-way ticket to a tormented, bitter end.