‘Werther’ at Washington National Opera by Teal Ruland

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On the surface, Werther is a simple “boy meet girls, boy falls in love with girl three hours later, girl marries someone else, boy dies” story. Like many operas, Werther follows the typical journey of the lovesick poet doomed to unhappiness. However, what makes this opera a gem is Jules Massenet’s lush and insightful score that embodies the pain and longing the characters feel. As the story progresses, his score intensifies and gives the audience a chance to further reflect on the human psyche.

Francesco Meli (Werther) and Sonia Ganassi (Charlotte). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Hailed as one of Massenet’s finest works, Werther, with libretto by Édouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann, is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. The somewhat autobiographical novel made Goethe an overnight success during the early Romantic Movement, and even sparked “Werther Fever,” a sensational effect that inspired late-18th century men to dress like the title character, and in some cases, commit copycat suicides.

It may be difficult for a 21st century audience to sympathize with Werther – after all, he falls passionately in love with a girl he barely knows and consequently kills himself because they cannot be together. However, this production updates the 18th century setting to the mid-1900s with brilliant sets by Tony Award Winner Michael Yeargan for Opera Australia and gorgeous period costumes by renowned Montreal fashion house, Barilà for Opéra de Montréal. The costumes are stunning, and they sparkle, flow, and fit the actors and period like a drop of water.

The oversized yet intimate set is nostalgic and captures the era. The completely white dining room is striking, and lighting designer Mark McCullough brilliantly lights up the stage, creates shadows, and highlights the actors in arresting ways. It parallels the high drama of the opera and the characters’ dispositions. Young Sophie is always cast in bright, sunny light, and Werther and Charlotte go back and forth between angular, shadowy lighting and warmer colors.

Tenor Francesco Meli plays the protagonist and allows the self-indulgent nature of his character to color his singing and overall performance. Werther is over dramatic and Meli even elicits a few laughs from the audience when he launches himself to the ground in anguish over his character’s cursed fate. However, he truly wins over the audience with his interpretation of “Pourqoiu me revéiller,” when he pulls out all the stops and lets his voice and emotions take total control.

Sonia Ganassi (Charlotte) is a wonderful actress with a rich, though slightly covered, voice. At times it’s hard to hear her over the orchestra, but she clearly pours her heart and soul into her performance. She and Meli have great chemistry, and her actions and facial expressions draw the audience in.

Emily Albrink (Sophie) and Sonia Ganassi (Charlotte). Photo by Scott Suchman.

The lovely Emily Albrink, playing the cheerful Sophie, is a welcome presence onstage to counter the gloomy lovebirds. Her clear, beautiful voice rings out, and her sunny performance contrasts with the dark, gloomy libretto. Johann and Schmidt (Kenneth Kellogg and Tim Augustin, respectively) provide much needed comic relief as the town drunkards, and the Washington National Opera Children’s Chorus is quite charming.

Maestro Emmanuel Villaume leads the audience on an adventure of Massenet’s strength for describing the troubles of the human heart. Under Villaume’s baton, the orchestra flourishes in the darker phrases and grasps the quainter themes that suggest everyday French conversation in the countryside. Director Chris Alexander’s overall staging was wonderful, and his direction in Act III is brilliant—I couldn’t get enough.

Runng Time: Two hours and forty minutes, including one intermission.

Werther runs plays through May 27, 2012 at The Washington National Opera at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase online or call (800) 444-1324 or (202) 467-4600.