Singers deliver the vocal drama in BLO’s updated “Werther”
It’s easy to sympathize with Werther’s plight.
The troubled young poet falls in love with Charlotte, who returns his feelings but has promised to marry Albert, a successful businessman. Werther pursues her anyway as she represents the unattainable, but his emotions drive him to depression. In the end, he commits suicide.
That’s the plot thread of Massenet’s Werther, which opened Friday night at the Shubert Theater in a smart and dramatic new production by the Boston Lyric Opera.
Some cynics may find Massenet’s style tiresome and musically thin. But Werther stands as one of the composer’s most distinguished achievements, rich in melody and a deep vein of theatrical sentimentality.
Based on Goethe’s epistolary novel, Werther deals with the vitality of obsessive love over soulless empiricism. The character would become a hero to later romantics because he had died for something other than himself. In his own way, he’s the hero of the story.
Crystal Manich’s production situates the opera in an arrondissement of Paris in the 1920s rather than in the late-eighteenth-century Germany of Goethe’s and Massenet’s original setting. The set designs, which consist of large panels placed at angles to frame the stage, transform the drama into a memory play. On these panels we see flashing images from Werther’s memory through video designs by Greg Emetaz that show black and white projections of Charlotte at a window, scenes of Werther and Charlotte dancing, and the silhouettes of a men lifting a bride’s veil, symbolizing the union of Charlotte and Albert. Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting design bathes the space in greens, grays, and reds to highlight Werther’s and Charlotte’s emotional journey.
Manich’s blocking places the love-sick Werther at the center of the psychological action, his presence onstage a constant reminder of his slow descent into depression. Props were simple and effective, with chairs, papers, cigarettes, and Werther’s pistol as common themes.
Save for the dead acoustic of the Shubert’s problematic space, the singing was excellent all around.
Alex Richardson made his company debut as Werther. Boston audiences will recognize the tenor from his appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Emmanuel Music. His acting showed the character in constant turmoil, keeping stern and forlorn expressions when seated alone.
Vocally, Richardson sang with a smooth-toned voice that was capable of capturing the dramatic heights. His swelling high notes caught the unhinged madness of his shouts of “C’est moi,” yet his singing was also capable of a soft glow, as was displayed in his meeting with the cordial Albert.
Richardson’s finest singing came in “Pourquoi me réveiller” where his tone blossomed fully with high notes of clarion power to capture the character’s realization that Charlotte does indeed love him.
Sandra Piques Eddy was affecting and sympathetic as the love-torn Charlotte. Eddy possesses a dark, rich mezzo-soprano that had just the right ring in her mellow middle range. Her acting captured her character’s desperation as she worried over Werther’s well being. Her performance of the letter aria, “Werther! Qui m’aurait dit,” in Act 3 was particularly impressive, giving the impression that Werther’s despair was also her own.
As the two would-be lovers, Eddy and Richardson had fine chemistry in their Act 1 duet, Eddy’s upper range taking on a ringing quality. And the two sang beautifully in Werther’s death scene.
Rounding out the cast, John Hancock, also making his BLO debut, was a gentle and avuncular presence as Albert, his clear voice adding warm personal touch to a character that can come off as cold. As Sophie, soprano Rachele Gilmore was bright-toned and agile in her Act 2 aria.
Singers James Demler, David McFerrin, and John Jurgens capably and comically filled out the roles of Le Bailli, Johann, and Schmidt respectively. The children’s chorus sang with fine tone and pristine blend.
In the pit, conductor David Angus led a richly evocative and dramatic reading of the score that allowed Massenet’s sumptuous music to blossom fully. The strings supplied ample dark tone during Werther’s dramatic scenes, and Kenneth Radnofsky shaded the lines with a mellow-toned saxophone solo.
Werther runs through March 20 at the Shubert Theater. blo.org
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