Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Poliuto, Glyndebourne

Donizetti’s Poliuto at Glyndebourne could well become one of of the great Glyndebourne classics.

Carmen by ENO

Dystopic vision of Carmen, brought to life by vibrantly gripping performances

Pacific Opera Project Presents Ariadne auf Naxos

Pacific Opera Project, a small Los Angeles company, presented a production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Ebell Club with an excellent group of young singers at the beginning of what should be good careers.

Varispeed pushes the possibilities of opera forward with Robert Ashley’s Crash

Six people, dressed in ordinary clothing, sitting in a row at desks adorned only with microphones and glasses of water, and talking for ninety minutes: is it opera?

Rising Stars in Concert, Lyric Opera of Chicago

The spring concert of Rising Stars in Concert, sponsored by and featuring current members of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, showcased a number of talents that will no doubt continue to grace the stages of the world’s operatic theaters.

The Singers Sparkle in New York Opera Exchange’s Carmen

New York Opera Exchange’s production of Carmen from May 8th to 10th highlighted that which opera devotees have been saying for years: Opera, far from being dead, is vibrant and evolving.

‘Where’er You Walk’: Handel’s Favourite Tenor

I have sometimes lamented the preference of Ian Page’s Classical Opera for concert performances and recordings over staged productions, albeit that their renditions of eighteenth-century operas and vocal works are unfailingly stylish, illuminating and supported by worthy research.

The Pirates of Penzance, ENO

Topsy Turvy, Mike Leigh’s 1999 film starring Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent, dramatized the fraught working relationship of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan; it won four Oscar nominations (garnering two Academy Awards, for costume and make-up) and is a wonderful exploration of the creative process of bringing a theatrical work to life.

Manitoba Opera: Turandot

There’s little doubt that Puccini’s Turandot is a flawed, illogical fairytale. Yet it continues to resonate today with its undying “love shall conquer all” ethos, where even the most heinous crimes may be forgiven by that which makes the world go ‘round.

Mariachi Opera El Pasado Nunca se Termina Comes to San Diego

On April 25, 2015, San Diego Opera presented it’s second Mariachi opera: El Pasado Nunca se Termina (The Past is Never Finished) by Jose “Pepe” Martinez, Leonard Foglia and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán.

Antonio Pappano: Royal Opera House Orchestral Concerts

Ambition achieved! Antonio Pappano brought the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House out of the pit and onto the stage, the centre of attention in their own right.

Bedřich Smetana: Dalibor, Barbican Hall

Jiří Bělohlávek’s annual Czech opera series at the Barbican, London, with the BBC SO continued with Bedřich Smetana’s Dalibor.

Orlando Explores Art Without Boundaries

R.B. Schlather’s production of Handel’s Orlando asks the enigmatic question: Where do the boundaries of performance art begin, and where do they end?

The Virtues of Things

A good number of recent shorter operas, particularly those performed in this country, made a stronger impression with their libretti than their scores.

Król Roger, Royal Opera

It has taken almost 89 years for Karol Szymanowski’s Król Roger to reach the stage of Covent Garden.

San Diego Opera Celebrates 50 Years of Great Singing

San Diego Opera, the company that General Manager Ian Campbell had scheduled for demolition, proved that it is alive and singing as beautifully as ever. Its 2015 season was cut back slightly and management has become a bit leaner, but the company celebrated its fiftieth season in fine style with a concert that included many of the greatest arias ever written.

Hercules vs Vampires: Film Becomes Opera!

In the early sixties, Italian film director Mario Bava was making pictures with male body builders whose well oiled physiques appeared spectacular on the screen.

Green: Mélodies françaises sur des poèmes de Verlaine

Philippe Jaroussky lends poetry and poise to the sounds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France

J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria

At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.

Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall

The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Alice Coote as Charlotte [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
24 Sep 2010

Werther in San Francisco

It has been twenty-five years since San Francisco Opera has staged a Werther. so it was high time that Massenet’s whiney, weepy masterpiece be given another chance.

Jules Massenet: Werther

Werther: Ramón Vargas; Charlotte: Alice Coote; Sophie: Heidi Stober; Albert: Brian Mulligan; The Bailiff: Christian Van Horn; Schmidt: Robert MacNeil; Kätchen: Susannah Biller; Brühlmann: Austin Kness; Johann: Bojan Knezevic. Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume. Director: Francisco Negrin. Production Designer: Louis Désiré. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler.

Above: Alice Coote as Charlotte

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

 

How it fared in 1985 is an interesting speculation, as its famed Werther, Alfredo Kraus was then 57 years-old and his Charlotte was the famed verismo diva Renata Scotto in decline.

Just now the Werther was entrusted to 50 year-old Ramón Vargas. Just two years ago Mr. Vargas was the perfect embodiment of an adorable Nemorino in the SFO Elisir d’amore. His career however generally has traversed larger lyric tenor roles — Rodolfo, Lenski, Don Carlo, etc. — for which he has perfected the physical delivery. Unfortunately this famous Mexican tenor no longer seems to be able to muster the vocal heft to match the gestures. Lacking now was the sense of vocal push and emotional release that makes a tenor, and therefore Werther exciting.

Stober_Sophie_SFO.gifHeidi Stober as Sophie

Likewise his Charlotte, British mezzo Alice Coote gave a problematic performance. She is a lovely artist in prime condition whose fame has accrued primarily in the Baroque repertory. But the studied musicality that made her an ideal Idamante in SFO’s 2008 Idomeneo did not serve her in this foray into the French dramatic mezzo repertory. Unlike Mr. Vargas she has not absorbed the gestures and mannerisms of this repertory, an attribute that this production exploited by inducing too much realistic detail into her acting. Coupled with self-conscious musicality her performance was hard to watch.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume however supplied everything these artists lacked, and created what was a memorable performance, his orchestra whining and weeping convincingly and crying out in full throat and throttle, his expansive tempos relentlessly driving the despair first of Werther and finally of Charlotte. Massenet’s tear-jerker is replete with much opportunity for the double reeds to freely emote and that the fine players of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra did with abandon.

The flawed performances of the protagonists were overwhelmed indeed by Mo. Villaume’s orchestral outpourings and were exacerbated by the set of this new production that elevated the singers and placed them somewhat behind the proscenium arch, a positioning that proved visually and acoustically remote. [This observation was based on sitting in the eighteenth row. At another, performance seated in the third row, these problems disappeared.]

This brand new production, directed by Francisco Negrin and designed by Louis Désiré, is challenging and interesting, attributes that are rare these days at SFO. The intent of the production was apparently to supply the world in which Werther and Charlotte’s story evolved with the innumerable complexities hinted at in the libretto but not present in Massenet’s score. The practical intent was perhaps to insert action into a libretto of static emotional and dramatic situations.

CooVar.gifRamón Vargas as Werther and Alice Coote as Charlotte

The frenzy of subtext that resulted did not illuminate the simple, direct emotions of the Massenet score but rather created a vibrant ambience for Massenet’s ultimate, over-the-top dénouement. Any attempt at analysis of this imposed subtext seems useless as it hardly matters to the emotional gravity of the story that Sophie is head-over-heels in love with Werther or that Albert reads Werther’s letters alongside Charlotte and lies beside her in the marriage bed while she imagines Werther reciting Ossian. These real and imagined complications were sometimes amusing and other times annoying.

All this was effected in a frenzy of staging clichés — piles of furniture, the doubling of characters by actors, scribbling on a wall, lines of neon light, reflective surfaces, post-modern mix of materials and images, shuttering effects of light and image, not to forget the obligatory use of video. But all were put to good use, and even effective once the irritation of seeing these hackneyed tricks hit the stage once again was forgotten.

MulCoo.gifAlice Coote as Charlotte and Brian Mulligan as Albert

Of particularly fine effect was the use of actor doubles for the dying Werther (making three of them!) allowing Charlotte to kneel over a splayed Werther while the erect Vargas/Werther held forth pathetically nearby and the third sat motionless facing upstage. Perhaps there was even a fourth Werther as someone held a torch in upstage blackness all through this long death scene.

It had come as a bit of a surprise when Charlotte donned the black dress in which she emoted over dying Werther — for the first three acts she was kept emotionally aloof and physically far away so it was hard to accept that she suddenly raced to his side.

The set architecture was based on horizontal bands — Werther’s garret on stage level, above that the stage-wide platform on which all life unfolded like on a cinemascope movie screen (even silver hued because of reflective metal walls). And above that floated intermittently a band of photographs of, inexplicably, some old New England houses variously modified from time to time to illustrate mood. A few vertical leafless metallic trees tried to function as an indication of season.

Mr. Vargas and Mme. Coote executed their roles with obvious respect for the production. Baritone Brian Mulligan was directed to an unrelenting oafish presence for Albert that precluded the admittance of any depth to his character. Soprano Heidi Stober brought vitality and vocal brilliance to Sophie in the evening’s only sympathetic performance. The unusually fine supporting cast (the bailiff and his cronies) though too young managed to bring their roles vocally and dramatically alive.

This Werther is co-produced by Lyric Opera of Chicago where presumably it will appear in the 2011-12 season. With another cast it may take on a depth it lacked here in San Francisco.

Michael Milenski

Click here for a photo gallery and video clips.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):