San Francisco Opera’s ‘Werther’

Between the sorrows of love …

Within the series of letters that make up Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” many of the emotions and aesthetics later characteristic of 19th-century Romanticism flow and ebb amid the writer’s youthful enthusiasms. These letters addressed to Werther’s friend, Wilhelm, tell of his brief and unhappy love for a woman who marries another man, his despair and his suicide. The letters are a paean to idealism: they are self-absorbed and full of high sentiments, feverish attachments, morbidity and narcissistic devotion. All of which attract because they create a world of sensitivity that posits love, nature and art as principles worth dying for.

San Francisco Opera’s very contemporary staging of Jules Massenet’s “Werther” by director Francisco Negrin brings the sorrowful young Werther back onstage, and thereby recaptures the impulse of the original work, turning it into a psychological study while easing some of its more self-indulgent flaws.

Massenet and his librettists abandoned the unrelenting presence of Werther as a character and interpreter of the events, and focused his passionate commentary in a beautiful first-act aria on nature, “O Nature, pleine de grace,” and the third-act meditation on love, “Pourquoi me réveiller?” Ramón Vargas’ elegantly toned and velvety sound seemed especially well suited to the sensitive and passionate Werther, giving the young lover qualities of sweetness and innocence and pulling the audience into quiet sympathy. Werther’s more brooding traits are infused into the opera’s lingeringly beautiful and subtle music.

The opera also allows the other characters to blossom. Charlotte’s gorgeous third-act meditation on Werther’s letters makes her larger and more engaging than the iconic mother figure that Goethe’s Werther is obsessed with. Alice Coote was an exceptional Charlotte, with a complex timbre and easy vocal largeness coupled with formidable acting skills. She transformed the young housewife into a vibrating soul of emotional delicacy.

There is also an infusion of charm in Massenet’s opera that “The Sorrows of Young Werther” lacks. Heidi Stober was simply wonderful as an impish and ebulliently silver-voiced Sophie.

All the singers were splendid.

… and the seduction of meaning

The current production allows for both Goethe’s and Massenet’s points of view. By splitting the stage horizontally, the producers put the main action of the story on a raised stage; below and in front to the side is Werther’s dreary little room where he dreams of Charlotte and maintains a dark and gloomy presence while the familial warmth of the family and the village continue above him. This follows Goethe, forcing Werther’s presence to the forefront of the audience’s perception and allowing us to see him as the obsessional character he is. It also echoes the abstractness inherent in a novel composed of letters.

Just as the pursuit of an ideal—in love or in art—is a kind of haunting, the characters are possessed. Werther haunts and is haunted by his ideal love; Charlotte is haunted by her obligations to her mother, which undo her own passionate nature.

The production and directing emphasized this motif: with Charlotte’s dead mother’s things piled in a mountainous stack stage right, and other characters moving as silent witnesses to the meditations of Werther and Charlotte: Sophie impishly wrapping herself in Werther’s bed clothes; Charlotte’s husband standing as the disgruntled husband and witness to her Letter Scene. The effect was to make the arias and even the action seem like a series of asides, which was insightful given the examination of psychological underpinnings that the production pursues.

The 1980s hi-tech/lo-tech sets seemed the most out of place in this thoughtful and lovely production. The trees that dominate center stage are meant to be not only a constant reminder of the passage of time but also of the power of the natural world to surpass human strivings—a restatement of Werther’s premise that the true locus of beauty is not in the intellect or in reason, but in natural feeling and passion. The tree’s trunks wrapped in metal just didn’t make sense, unless you view nature as a reflection of the constraints of human personality. That doesn’t quite work in the context of Goethe, Massenet or the early 21st century with its ecological concerns.

All in all, though, SF Opera’s “Werther” was a well thought out, beautifully produced and sublimely performed opera.

—Jaime Robles 

San Francisco Opera’s production of Massenet’s “Werther” continues at the War Memorial Opera House through October 1.

Ramón Vargas (Werther) and Alice Coote (Charlotte) in “Werther.” Photo by Cory Weaver