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Monday, September 20, 2010

Saturday Night: Massenet's 'Werther' at San Francisco Opera

Posted By on Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 8:49 AM

Alice Coote (Charlotte) and Ramon Vargas (Werther) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Alice Coote (Charlotte) and Ramon Vargas (Werther)
Werther by Jules Massenet
War Memorial Opera House
September 18

Better than:  A chaotic production with mediocre singers

The new production of Jules Massenet's Werther making its debut at San Francisco Opera demonstrates the degree to which a successful opera depends on a constellation of elements coalescing just so. Despite outstanding performances from three key singers, an orchestra that masterfully rendered Massenet's complex score, and a taut if somewhat predictable story drawn from an iconic work of literature, the production felt less satisfying than these assets might indicate. For that, a good part of the blame rests on Louis Désiré's production design and Francisco Negrin's direction.

It's not that I reflexively take exception to less-than-traditional stagings of operas. This summer's Die Walküre, to name one recent example, was brilliant -- freeway overpass, aviator goggles, and all. But that production had an overall coherence of vision and purpose that this Werther lacked. Its set had elements that, on their own, were intriguing.  Unfortunately, there were far too many of them to coexist successfully -- particularly in service of a plot this straightforward, with a core cast this small. When intimacy was called for -- which was most of the time -- scattershot spectacle reigned. Watching this production felt like reading a book by a talented writer who badly needs a slash-and-burn editor to save the writing from its excesses and unevenness, thereby allowing the more effective innovations to shine.

What's worse, the set -- a multilevel mishmash of piled-up boxes concealing a staircase; a subterranean artists' pad; a stand of minimalist trees with a photographic image of leaves suspended in front of the branches; a five-foot-high metal wall encircling the rear and right side of the stage; a frequently used trapdoor; and intermittent backdrops of sketches of houses and red blobs -- palpably interfered with some of the opera's most powerful moments. When Werther (tenor Ramón Vargas, in top form) curses his unrequited love and foreshadows his suicide in a tremendous aria toward the end of the second act, it's just a distraction to show a video of his beloved twirling about behind him on a screen hidden in the wall of his room. As much as I tried to focus on Vargas, who was holding nothing back, my eyes kept wandering to the screen behind him. It should have been his moment; pity he had to compete with what looked like amateur close-up footage of a dance recital.

  • Cory Weaver
  • Werther
If the staging did Vargas no favors, at least his fellow performers were up to snuff. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote's Charlotte didn't have much of note to do in the first two acts (aside from raising six children and embodying ideal womanhood), but as her character unraveled emotionally and psychologically after the intermission, her performance found depth and fire. In her S.F. Opera debut, Heidi Stober was perfection as Charlotte's younger sister Sophie, bringing a limpid soprano to the character's sing-songy, faintly manic arias, and a borderline-hysterical quality to her obsession with Werther. Her precariously controlled brand of crazy upped the tension every time she was onstage, adding a welcome air of unpredictability. Baritone Brian Mulligan as Charlotte's eventual husband, Albert, was solid if not spectacular -- which is fitting, in a way, for how's a stolid burgher to distinguish himself against the percolating turmoil surrounding him?

  • Cory Weaver
  • Werther
As fine as the individual performances were, a convincing chemistry didn't fully develop among the singers. Whether this was a cause or a symptom of the production's larger incoherence, I'm not certain. But it surely didn't help that the performers had to contend with decisions like having a triumvirate of Werthers onstage for the final act -- one to lie on the ground after the character's suicide, one (Vargas) to stand and belt out his dying words, and one to sort of meander off into the woods (from my seat, I couldn't see exactly where Werther 3.0 finally ended up). Two avatars might have been an effective choice, but three? This moment seemed to epitomize the production's essential flaw -- attempting to craft a novel interpretation of a relatively simple tale, while lacking the restraint to keep innovation from devolving into gimmickry.

Remaining performances are Sept. 22, 26, 28, and Oct. 1 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), S.F. Tickets are $20-$360; call 864-3330 or visit for more information. Performances run approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission. Sung in French, with English supertitles.

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Emily Hilligoss


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