Making a mess of Massenet: Director’s disastrous conceits doom San Francisco Opera’s “Werther”

September 29, 2010

Ramon Vargas and Alice Coote in San Francisco Opera's new production of Massenet's "Werther." Photo: Cory Weaver

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.

Photo: Cory Weaver

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.; 415-864-3330

4 Responses to “Making a mess of Massenet: Director’s disastrous conceits doom San Francisco Opera’s “Werther””

  1. Posted Sep 30, 2010 at 10:02 am by louis Keith

    The real tragedy of this type of Eurotrash is that the director uses the public’s money to do this and the people running the opera companies let them do it. I am in chicago, and would not have gone to see this Werther in 2011, but now I will to reinforce my ideas about how bad things have become.

  2. Posted Oct 01, 2010 at 1:50 am by Francisco Negrin

    Well, I am sorry you did not enjoy the show. And I of course respect your opinon. I certainly wish it had in some way offered you a more enjoyable experience and that I had put forward my ideas more clearly.
    I have never in over 25 years of career, answered a review, but I would like to say this one time that the show was certainly made with love for a piece which I have studied and had passion for since I first staged it over 20 years ago , and while you can certainly write that the ideas did not work for you, since they clearly did not, you cannot say I was cynical at any moment, because I simply was not, and I am compelled to point out just for truth’s sake, since these aspects have nothing to do with your opinion, but rather with misrepresentation of the truth , that that neither Ramon Vargas, (nor for that matter Alice Coote , nor Maestro Villaume) at any point “ignored the nonsense around him” since this production was totally a team effort and all three, along with the rest of the cast (Mr Mulligan being especially a fan of what you call my idiocy, since he believed I helped him represent Albert as a much more detailed character than he was used to portraying and Miss Stober finding the “circumstances” you say she found it difficult to be professional in to be totally stimulating and exciting) and along with the crew and the management , were enthusiastic about the work we all did together as a very united team and all believe said work was among the most thoughtful, insightful and musically caring they had ever done on Werther, often stating that it made their performances richer and deeper ,as their talent and input did to my work. So, while I of course accept your criticism, I will not allow you to untruthfully represent the opinion of my colleagues, which you have no knowledge of at all and hence no right to make statements about.
    And I would like to say in my defense, that every decision and idea stemmed from the music and the text (if not from the often contradictory or illogical and outdated staging indications or from the often incorrect or biased synopsis in cd booklets and programmes that many in the audience use as reference) and hence not one action contradicts anything that is being said or any of the motifs or gestures in the music, which is precisely why we all worked so well as a team and why we are all so proud of this production, that you also fail to mention received a standing ovation.

    As for Mister Louis Keith, I wish you would go see the show and make up his own mind. Here is, just for argument’s sake, a very different opinion I also stumbled upon which will hopefully influence you just as easily as the one here expressed.
    I would also like to tell Mr Keith that I am American, so could hardly be accused of being Eurotrash…. And by the way, in Europe, and especially in France and Germany, which are the original nations of this piece, this production would be seen as deeply traditionalist …. My work has nothing to do with what is often described as “regie” theatre, in which concepts are stuck onto a piece rather than be generated by the piece.

    By the way, Mr Johnson, if you describe the show, and however much you disliked it, which, again , is a fact and a right that I fully respect and lament, please try to be factually correct not only about statements you make about what singers may or may not think of a production they are in (after all you have no idea even which parts are of their own making and which parts of the performances you so enjoyed are of mine, and that goes for a lot of he musical aspects too) , but also simply about what is on stage, since, for example Werther does escort Charlotte to the ball (but they return home separately after), the actors representing Werther’s soul and spirit in the final scene do not carry torches, Albert and Charlotte do not go to the ball together (they meet after the ball and do not waltz). Sophie is late to the Pastor’s anniversary celebration, which is why she is slapped, the Bailiff and her both cry because Sophie has found her dead mother’s shawl and both miss her terribly, the fact the Bailiff drinks is in the score and libretto (and his two best friends only talk about drinking) , and finally, the two leveled set, does push the performers up, but not away. This set is set on stage exceptionally far forward, to the extent that the house curtain could not be used, and being shallow and made of metal, it acoustically pushes voices out and is very comfortable for the artists to sing in. The whole upper level of the set represents the Bailiff’s house, not just the jumble of boxes, which are simply containers for the dead mother’s belongings, and the intent, by the way, was exactly ” to isolate the characters both physically and emotionally” so thanks for the compliment.

    Oh, and Werther IS a melodrama , which is a genre, not an insult. Maybe you should brush up on the german Sturm un Drang literary movement , of which Werther is the most famous example , and read the movement’s definition of melodrama before criticizing my knowledge of the same. My intent was to go further into Massenet’s truly delicate and complex and psychological musical world which to my ears depicts a tragedy, which is a slightly different literary genre and more of the composer’s time than of that of the original novel, and hence, to my eyes and ears and soul, more appropriate and truthful to the composer.

    To anyone going to the last performance, or the performances in Chicago, I hope you enjoy it as much as we all enjoyed preparing it over two years of respectful study , preparation and tender care… with the only intent of providing a soulful and emotionally true experience for all who would be open to “reading it” with equal care and with some experience of and taste for the grammar of theatre and art in our time. I , again, am sorry we failed Mr Johnson and that he might enjoy other works and certainly write about them with less violence and falsely apparent inside knowledge, since after all the whole point of going to the theatre is to experience different propositions and to be stimulated in different ways so as to enrich one’s life, even if sometimes we do not agree with what we see. The important thing being the quality of craftsmanship and seriousness of the work respectfully proposed to the audience, aspects I am convinced we succeeded in but feel this review does not.

  3. Posted Oct 02, 2010 at 3:20 am by Lisa K. Valkenier

    Well, Mr. Negrin, I did go to the final performance tonight & found your staging idiotic. My unkind reaction: the director should be shot, not Werther & his two Doppelgängern. The people around me in the audience disliked your production, as did participants in an SF Opera workshop I attended last week and other opera fans with whom I have spoken. As an American, you no doubt are familiar with the term “epic fail”.

    Yes, Mr. Johnson’s review contains errors, but none so egregious as your conceits. This is what I found especially contradictory about your staging: you have Charlotte meeting with Albert & receiving his present before the bailiff announces his return, at which she still expresses surprise. Charlotte’s bidding goodbye to Albert at the door instead of Werther, who as a good gentleman should have accompanied her home after the ball, makes absolutely no sense.

    Your staging lacked any subtlety or delicacy though you claim to explore the complex psychological nature of the story. The slap is gratuitous. The red light hammered in the theme of suicide & death. I get it, I get it. Albert’s hovering over Charlotte while she read the letters so obviously symbolizes her feelings of being stifled in her marriage. Similarly his stolid presence in her bed while Werther expresses his passion. At least the wind instruments convey Albert’s bourgeois nature humorously. Sometimes less is more, Mr. Negrin. How convenient to portray Werther’s experience as a dream or fantasy rather than reality when he & his beloved are fornicating in nature. Her final kiss (to his spirit or was it his soul?) is so demure in comparison. Truly, your production was a mess. In so many instances the action on the stage did not complement the libretto or its original intent.

    I can’t imagine enduring a traditional production of Werther in this day and age, but your updated interpretation did not make the opera relevant to modern audiences. Fortunately the exquisite music and singing shone through your choppy, disastrous direction.

  4. Posted Oct 04, 2010 at 9:11 pm by William

    Mr Negrin referenced my very positive review of the San Francisco Opera “Werther” at, which found his ideas insightful and illuminating.

    I believe the use of surreality is often appropriate in staging certain French works (such as Christopher Alden’s staging of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman” at Santa Fe Opera this summer, and Langridge’s production of Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera last Spring, both of which I also very much admired in my reviews of those productions).

    But surreality that enhances the dramatic presentation of the opera is being confused with the hangover that all of us feel about many indefensible productions from the recent past that all of us have experienced.

    As a strong advocate for French opera, and for the works of Massenet, I look forward to traveling to Chicago to see the Negrin production of “Werther’s” performances in 2012.