Monday, September 24, 2012

Love Gone Wrong: Minnesota Opera's Werther provides all of opera’s basic elements in one nourishing (but mildly bland) serving


I don’t know if it was the slow snow or the melancholy tale of a doomed love, but the Minnesota Opera could have stood a little more “Vivat Bacchus” spirit for the opening of Massanet’sWerther.
There is a certain irony in watching a dramatic opera about Germans be performed in French, ad it never really works for Werther. This Werther is well performed to be sure, but the cultural and emotional translation Massenet’s text requires is like walking on a sandy beach in high heels – it’s too wobbly be felt at full force.
Werther is a promising scholar consumed with love for Charlotte, a bailiff’s daughter who cares for her younger siblings after her mother dies. Charlotte returns his love but is unable to consummate it, as she promised her dying mother that she would marry another suitor, Albert.
Charlotte keeps her word, but quickly realizes it was a terrible decision. She is consumed with only slightly less longing for Werther than he has for her. Werther flees for several months, but upon his return neither is able to bear being parted again. Werther then commits suicide and dies in Charlotte’s tearful arms, freeing her from the shame of leaving her husband or total despair at never being able to fully be with him.
James Valenti is appropriately morose and brooding as the downcast Werther, and he sings marvelously. I would personally prefer to hear him serenading his way through Mozart or Puccini, but he conveys Werther’s love and anger equally well.
Roxana Constantinescu, as Charlotte, provides few sparks. Her voice does everything it needs to do, but provides no truly exquisite moments aside from a few sparkling stanzas in the opera’s second half.
Sophie (Angela Mortellaro) and Johann (Rodolfo Nieto) both carried their short stage time into maximum decibel levels as the show’s unexpected shining stars. Mortellaro truly thrills as Charlotte’s joyful, avian-esque little sister, and her vocal calisthenics enthused the audience. Nieto’s voice (which I hope is featured in future productions) made the impossibly short theme of “Vivat Bacchus” one of Werther’s most memorable scenes.
Werther’s best moments can be found in the show’s second half. In particular, the ‘letter duet’ between Werther and Charlotte, and Charlotte’s lament for Werther before his appearance after his exile, were divine.
As usual, the focal point of Werther (and most Minnesota Opera productions) is the beautiful set, designed by Allen Moyer. The industrial bridges, home interiors and especially the tree (which grows on stage!) were all immaculately constructed. Costumes, designed by Jessica Jahn, and the pit (directed by Christoph Campestrini), were also lovely.
This is a meat-and-potatoes performance, providing all of opera’s basic elements in one nourishing (but mildly bland) serving. While not the peak of complexity or thrilling in its extremes, this Werther can keep your opera thirst satiated for a while. 
+ Werther will be performed at the Minnesota Opera on Feb. 2, Feb. 4 and Feb. 5. Learn more at mnopera.org.