15 Feb 2011

Werther in Lyon

Massenet tells us that his Werther is 23 years old, that Charlotte is 20 years old. Albert is 25 and Sophie is but 15. Just now the Lyon Opera assembled just such a cast.

This unusual casting was the crucial element of an astonishing concept production. Director Rolando Villazón mined the delicate moments of transition between childhood, adolescence and the first revelatory moments of maturity that he divined in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe himself could not argue with Mr. Villazón.

The delicacy of Mr. Villazón's concept was exacerbated by his metaphor. The action of opera's most turgid tale was transferred to the big top — yes, a circus! and narrated in the language of clowning. If all this sounds off-putting, it was. For about three minutes. It became first fascinating, and finally convincing.

DSC_4132_werther_MCavalca.gifThe opera wore the concept well, Massenet's local drunks Schmidt and Johann were singing clowns (very good ones) and a couple of young town folk, Katchen and Bruhlmann, were in fact very real circus clowns. Mr. Villazón's clowns were always on or never far from the stage. They complicated the opera's world of childish delights — Massenet's Yuletide begins and ends his opera — by framing the opera's story with the sadness that is inherent in all clowns. They also imposed a blatantly simple language of storytelling.

They cavorted as clowns do (Schmidt's teared clown-face hovered behind Charlotte as she delivered her Va, laisse couler mes larmes, marking its moments with his clown-hand miming). They exploited the clowning technique to use a simple prop to represent a fare more complicated image (a black dress for Charlotte's dead mother, and finally Werther's frock coat for the dying then dead Werther).

Two identical Werthers moved in simultaneous motions on the stage, one the 10-year-old child Werther, the other the Werther who now faces a different world. Mr. Villazón knows that Charlotte is the victim of the opera Werther, suffering the overwhelming forces of maternal love in conflict with nearly equal forces of romantic love. Werther himself has only to cope with the realization that Werther the child no longer exists, but it is Charlotte who must place his tiny frock coat into the small, coffin shaped box of clowning props.

The clowning metaphor was relentlessly pursued, not for a moment did the concept waiver within the appropriate decors designed by François Séguin — the big-top made of many masts supporting flowing cloth, cages, the toys clowns use and an abstracted harpsichord that mimed the church organ sounds of resigned and contented lives. Costume design by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck [sic] underscored the depth of the concept in its deft mixture of period costume and clowning tradition.


This startling concept insisted that we hear this masterpiece as we never had heard it before. And that we did in a very present (loud) orchestral reading that magnified the scores more vivid colors. Austrian conductor Lionel Hager had obvious respect for the concept. He found inspired orchestral realization for the love that flowed though a long red, clown scarf pulled between the Charlotte and Werther. He brought a multitude of fortissimo climaxes to the outpourings of the young Werther. And no real gunshot shocked the musical torrent of the suicide (the gun was merely a prop from the box of toys).

Famed hautecontre tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt stole the clowning show as Schmid, well matched by Lyon Opera regular, Syrian baritone Nabil Suliman as Johann. Katchen and Bruhlmann (Marie-Laure Cloarec and Gregory Escolin) managed their few lines somehow and otherwise added artistic sheen as professional clowns. Mr.Escolin embodied yet a third Werther, this one a clown imprisoned in a cage.

Usually the province of a mature, read matronly, artist here Charlotte was gracefully embodied by young French mezzo soprano Karine Deshayes. She is a finished artist with a bright and vibrant voice, a revelation in this role. American tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz substituted youth and good looks for the refinement associated with Massenet's singer (and Goethe's poet), and had an abundant supply of secure and powerful high notes to win over those not taken in by looks alone. Belgian baritone Lionel Lhote was a gentile, sympathetic young Albert not yet made hard by worldly success. Though obviously far from fifteen Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet nonetheless captured the accents of incipient adolescence far more than the usual vocal brilliance of Sophie, and this innocence made her endearing.


Rolando Villazón is a tenor of enormous reputation, and obviously a man of directorial vision. At the same time much credit must go to the Opéra de Lyon for seeing this remarkable production through to the end and for adding exceptional polish to such a problemic endeavor.

Mr. Villazón is an admitted amateur clown. Let us hope he has not blown his directorial wad with this bizarre first production. And that he may have other hidden talents to theatrically exploit in future productions. Hopefully some daring opera house will find out.

Michael Milenski