Making a mess of Massenet: Director’s disastrous conceits doom San Francisco Opera’s “Werther”
By the time director Francisco Negrin’s fatally revisionist production of Massenet’s Werther limped to the finish line at San Francisco Opera with three Werther doubles shooting Ramon Vargas–the “real” poet—you wish one of the pistols was pointed in your direction just to escape this hellish show.
In an economically straitened time when so many major companies are running to safety-first repertoire of Carmen, Madama Butterfly, and La Boheme, San Francisco Opera deserves credit for mounting a new production of Massenet’s romantic tragedy, and reviving a masterpiece that has been shunted to the margins in recent decades.
Unfortunately, this staging—a coproduction with the Lyric Opera of Chicago—could serve as an exemplar of an out-of-control stage director’s concept turning the original work inside out and destroying Massenet’s brooding melancholy opera in the process.
In comments in the program, director Negrin says he didn’t want to present Werther “just as melodrama” (unintentionally serving notice that’s what he believes Massenet’s opera to be). Rather his staging is an attempt to draw the passion and sadness “from a deeper psychological place.”
Negrin’s central motif appears to be to paint Goethe’s tortured poet as dreaming much of the action. In Act 1, he doesn’t escort Charlotte, the object of his obsessive love, to the ball—he only imagines it. So Werther stays in his small bedroom cell while in reality her fiancee Albert waltzes with Charlotte as live video images of Werther’s twirling beloved dance in his fevered head.
Instead of a kindly old father, the Bailiff is an abusive drunk who slaps Charlotte’s younger daughter Sophie for no reason (her relentless cheerfulness is annoying, but come on). I’m still trying to figure out why Sophie suddenly runs to Werther’s bottom-level cell and hides under his bedsheets or why she suddenly bursts into tears in Act 1 for no apparent reason. To paraphrase Gilbert & Sullivan, if everyone’s deranged in this opera, then no one’s deranged.
It gets better—meaning, worse. In the crucial Third Act in defiance of the libretto, plausibility and all common sense, Charlotte is aided in reading Werther’s ominous love letters by a silent Albert, who holds them for her to read, gently kisses her and silently tears them up.
Negrin saves his greatest coups for the most important moments. In the climactic scene when Werther pours out his heart to the conflicted Charlotte, the two protagonists passionately declare their forbidden love without ever facing or even interacting with each other. Charlotte here lolls about alone in a bed because, says Negrin “she falls asleep and imagines what might have happened. When she wakes from the dream, she realizes she is in love with Werther.” Get it? Neither do I.
There’s more. The interlude between the final two acts is now an extended makeout scene between Werther and Charlotte rather than a bridge between his exit and suicide. By the time we got to the final scene with multiple Werther Doppelgangers walking around carrying torches, Massenet doesn’t have a chance.
You knew you were in for it when the curtain went up Sunday afternoon on Louis Désiré’s two-level unit set. The majority of the action is played out on a large raised furniture-less stage above, while beneath and closer to the front is Werther’s rumpled bed in his dingy room. Here he pines for Charlotte, agonizing, holding his head in his hands, even painting her name on the wall in blood red. The bilevel motif proves more distracting than illuminating, pushing the singers up and away from the audience. Whatever the intent, the effect is to isolate the characters both physically and emotionally, and effectively miniaturize the main action of the opera.
Désiré’s metaphoric set is encased within a vast stainless-steel container. A few stark bare trees loom menacingly and the passing seasons are marked by a large picture frame with changing arboreal colors. Instead of the haven of cozy domesticity that Massenet intended, the Bailiff’s house is represented by a towering steeply piled jumble of crates and boxes, showing the family’s inner “sense of instability,” sayeth Negrin.
Massenet’s bleak adaptation of Goethe’s brooding novel is hardly Babes in Toyland, but Negrin’s convoluted psychobabble and cynical contempt for the composer’s score make this production a travesty, largely obliterating the gentle melancholy and dark eloquence of this intimate tragedy.
By the time we reached the coda Sunday afternoon, I was more depressed than Werther. It’s unfortunate that such a fine cast has to be wasted in this ill-founded staging, especially in SFO’s first production of Massenet’s opera in a quarter-century.
In the title role of the melancholic poet, Ramon Vargas started out with an unsteady Invocation to Nature but gained in both strength and polish as the production continued. Gamely ignoring the nonsense around him, the Mexican tenor sang with big tone and affecting sensitivity, bringing a dramatic frisson to Werther’s most florid moments. Unfortunately his Pourquoi me réveiller?, while finely sung, was broken up by loud, enthusiastic applause after the first verse, surprising coming from the usually sophisticated San Francisco audience.
Alice Coote was even more impressive as Charlotte. Indeed, the English mezzo brought such richness of voice and searing dramatic intensity to the final two acts, you almost believed the opera should be titled Charlotte.
Brian Mulligan was a serviceable Albert, his rotund presence and staid vocalism making Albert an even more bourgeois dullard than usual. In fairness, Mulligan was forced to cope with much of Negrin’s idiocy, including having him as a silent participant at the most unlikely moments.
Heidi Stober as Sophie, Christian Van Horn as the Bailiff, Robert MacNeil as Schmidt and Bojan Knezevic as Johann performed as professionally as possible under the circumstances
Emmanuel Villaume conducted magnificently, drawing playing of immense power and sleek tonal refinement in Massenet’s most sumptuous score. Close your eyes and think of Wetzlar.
The final performance of Werther is October 1. sfopera.org; 415-864-3330