Werther at Lyric Opera Chicago Review - The Exquisite Art of Misdirection

The theme of unrequited love is older than even the written language that was used to immortalize its essential messages. Easily understood both by those who experience it and those who witness others experiencing it, pretty much everyone has felt the emotions evoked by the star-crossed lovers.  

Matthew Polenzani as Werther. Photo by Robert Kusel

In its 2012 – 2013 season, Lyric Opera Chicago presents Werther by Jules Massenet, a coproduction with San Francisco Opera Association. Despite a beautiful score and phenomenal performances, director Francisco Negrins vision of Werther overreaches on reimagining the all-too-familiar star-crossed lover tale, creating instead an occasionally amusing but overall visually confusing tale of a man's descent into madness and despair.

Matthew Polenzani as Werther. Photo by Dan Rest

The narrative of the opera is derived from The Sorrows of Young Werther written by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe in 1774. Young Werther visits a small French town and immediately falls in love with the bailiff’s daughter Charlotte, even though Charlotte is engaged to be married to the handsome young Albert, an arrangement made at the request of Charlotte’s dying mother. Even though he receives the affections of Charlotte’s young sister Sophie, Werther is inconsolably in love with Charlotte. Seeing that Charlotte is unwilling to break her solemn vow or the heart of her betrothed, Werther determines that suicide is the only way to escape the pain of unrequited love. He shoots himself using pistols borrowed from Albert, and as he lay dying Charlotte confesses that she does in fact love Werther. Goethe’s work was highly praised in its time for the nearly unprecedented suicide of its main character.

Sophie Koch and Matthew Polenzani in Werther. Photo by Dan Rest

The demands on the title role are two-fold: he must be a terrific musician in addition to being a terrific dramatic actor. Tenor Matthew Polenzani superbly performed the passionate and melancholy title role with flawlessly warm tone, however he also delivered with his tender, fragile and genuine dramatic performance. Mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch had a similar challenge as Charlotte, a deeply conflicted and almost equally melancholy love interest, and she also delivered a stirring and passionate performance. Additional compliment is owed to Craig Verm, the gentlemanly-to-a-fault Albert, and Kiri Deonarine, the larkish young sister Sophie, who provided memorable performances.

Picture of Werther Set and Cast. Photo by Robert Kusel

Negrin describes the Massenet score as “giving amazingly precise psychological information throughout.” Indeed, the rich and pastoral first notes from the Lyric Opera Orchestra (conducted by Sir Andrew Davis) included subtly somber undertones, rising in volume to a sharp and pensive dissonance, which then returns to a placid calm that disarms you for the next surge. Throughout the opera the orchestra drives the bus.  Negrin admits that his intent with Werther was “to stage the music rather than the libretto.”

Craig Verm and Sophie Koch in Werther. Photo by Dan Rest

With that in mind, Negrin acknowledges that ignoring the traditional staging is a rather provocative move to the opera world. His modern staging of Rinaldo at the Lyric last season was controversial but had charming moments and in the end it worked. With Werther there are indeed a slew of charming moments, but some of the staging decisions completely distort the story. Negrin has essentially the entire narrative taking place as the fantasy of a creepy obsessed stalker seducing a young girl who may never have actually loved him, or really known him for that matter. Werther’s bedroom is permanently below the action on stage, adorned with Charlotte’s name written over and over, suggesting a disturbingly obsessed man. The staging of the touching and fiercely emotional final duet between Werther and Charlotte shows all the visual characteristics of being a confusing nightmare by Charlotte, where at one point Werther is represented by four different actors on stage descending upon her with torches and blindfolds, as she squirms and tosses asleep in bed.

Matthew Polenzani and Sophie Koch in Werther. Photo by Dan Rest

I often found it difficult to discern what was happening on stage, and the dreamlike element is completely new to the story, so when the truly fantastic occurs it creates more confusion than fantastic wonder. And frankly, if all of Werther is a dream, then rather than tapping into the psychology of the score, Negrin injected deep psychoses in these characters. These are not people in love; they are desperately sad and obsessed people repeatedly contemplating criminal acts for what they imagine to be love. I will concede this though, if the entire play is imagined, it puts a dark twist on the ending in Goethe’s version, where Werther’s grave goes unvisited by Charlotte or Albert, as they would never have even really known him.

Craig Verm and Sophie Koch in Werther. Photo by Dan Rest

As controversial as the Lyric staging of Werther is certain to be, the music really does stand on its own merits and was a terrific performance.  That said, Werther also demonstrates that taking too many artistic liberties may adversely distort a powerful story. With some attention to continuity and a more straightforward understanding of the action, Werther could be an enjoyable modern look at a classic.

Werther is playing through November 26 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. For tickets and showtimes, visit www.lyricopera.org

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