Tuesday, September 21, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Massenet's Werther

Sept. 19, 2010
The great challenge of Werther - based on the novel by Goethe - is that so much of the conflict takes place inside the minds of its characters: the fatally romantic poet of the title and Charlotte, the object of his obsessions, who becomes so haunted by Werther's sadness that she risks house and home to save him. In a co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, stage director Francisco Negrin and production designer Louis Desire have taken all this interior Sturm und Drang and turned it inside-out, giving the opera a vivid visual language and creating a transcendent production.

Desire's set design delivers all the stimulating provocation of a good conceptual art exhibit. Center stage is dominated by a cluster of bare trees, given their seasonal wardrobes by a dangling square of foliage representing spring (Act I) and fall (Act II). A jarring metallic border offers bars of light that flash white for heaven and love, red for blood and death. Projections along the back screen offer haunting visions of an isolated neighborhood, a stripe of light when Werther talks of "raising the curtain and stepping to the other side," and foreshadowing smears of blood. A mountain of boxed possessions represents the chaos of Charlotte's household, and a video screen next to Werther's bed serves up his obsessions: visions of dancing with Charlotte, or a live capture creating an eternal line of Werthers as the poet rails against his dilemma.

Without singers, of course, this is all for naught, but the opera pivots around the enormous talents of Ramon Vargas. Vargas's divine lyric tenor is well-suited to Massenet's understated, delicate style, and he crafts his lines with a painter's touch. His impish presence and oddly graceful way of moving give Werther the sympathetic aura of the self-tortured soul, even when his behavior veers toward stalkerdom. Every moment of his singing is a delight, leading up to the signature aria "Pourquoi me reveiller," using the words of the poet Ossian.

Vargas's tenor is nicely matched by the creamy baritone of Brian Mulligan. The beauty of Mulligan's tone helps to keep Albert from sliding over to the villain side. Albert's only real sin, after all, is marrying a woman who doesn't entirely love him, and finding that his best friend has an obsession with his wife is not exactly an easy situation to deal with.

As Charlotte, mezzo Alice Coote begins the opera in rather unremarkable fashion, but grows in strength and depth both vocally and dramatically, reaching a peak with Charlotte's Act III obsession over Werther's letters, "Air des lettres." Soprano Heidi Stober provides much-needed sunlight as little sister Sophie, introducing beautifully colored dynamic lines into her singing, notably with her first aria, "Du gai soleil." (The good news is, Stober is also singing Susanna in SFO's Le Nozze di Figaro.)

Director Negrin's influence shows in the innovation of the players' movements, small touches like Werther painting the name of his beloved on his bedroom wall, but mostly in a reworked and intensified finale. The Act III flirtation is turned into a dream, with Werther speaking his passions to Charlotte from behind her bedstead. The actual tryst - one of the more passionate tussles you will ever see on an opera stage - is moved into Massenet's intermezzo. Werther, previously fractured by the video screen, breaks into three persons (Vargas and two identically dressed supers) and shoots himself. Charlotte hovers over the body of one of the supers as Vargas sings Werther's dying thoughts, a spirit hovering over his own body. Strangely, this is a more realistic approach than the usual, in which a man with mortal chest wounds sings lovely passages of lyric tenor. Regardless, the reworking makes for disturbing, scintillating theater, and ups the psychological ante tenfold.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume and orchestra gave a lush reading of Massenet's pastry-chef score. The passages of solo violin and cello in the overture were gorgeous. At times, in the first two acts, the playing got a little too rich, overpowering the singers.

Image: Ramon Vargas and Alice Coote. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Through October 1 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $20-$360, 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.

SFO's historical cast of choice: how about Jose Carreras and Kathleen Battle in 1978?

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," available at amazon.com.

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