And speaking of beautiful bores, Werther is as ravishing and anesthetizing as they come. Now, I’ll admit I’m somewhat Massenet-challengeda little of this composer goes a very long way with mebut few could claim Werther’s plot is jampacked with incident. The story is not hard to follow: Werther falls in love with Charlotte (moments after meeting her), discovers she’s engaged, whines about it for the better part of a year, then blows his brains out. Not to say that’s all that happens. In Act 1, for instance, some little kiddies sing a Christmas carol (in July, har-har), while Werther extols the beauty of nature. Then extols the beauty of little kiddies. Then extols the beauty of Charlotte (a lot of extolling). Charlotte gets misty about her dead mother and her dead sister, her living sister Sophie skips around the yard, the fiancé drops off some flowers, and Werther declares he’d rather die than lose out on all this purity and domestic bliss. Curtain. There are three more acts. Get the idea?
The opera is based on a literary classic, Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werthersort of a Catcher in the Rhine for the 19th-century teen-suicide set. But while the focused compulsions of good Romantic prose can throw its readers into a sweat, translating such intimate stuff to the stage can be a tricky proposition. In Werther’s case, Massenet’s music caresses the story but mutes its passions. His score is the aural equivalent of candied violets, Werther’s life-and-death obsessions rendered in pastels. Nowhere in evidence is the heat, the churning desperation of Verdi or Tchaikovsky’s lovelorn heroes, let alone the psychological and symphonic depth found in Wagner and Debussy. Massenet’s art is illustrative rather than illuminating, and in seeking to keep audience feathers unruffled, he contents himself with melancholy surfaces rather than genuinely disturbing undercurrents. For better or worse, Werther is one, long wistful sigh.
As is the production. Director Roman Terleckyj and designer Zack Brown are both militant literalists, both lovers of pretty surfaces, and as such fit Massenet hand-in-glove. With a stageful of painstakingly realistic arbors and quaint groupings of quaintly costumed extras, all Acts 1 and 2 are missing are the glass case and museum guards patrolling the aisles. Then in Act 3, something happens. Leaving behind the safely cocooned world of balmy weather, happy families, and hopeful love in the first two acts, Brown abandons as well his dogged naturalism, casting some parlor furniture and an exquisitely muralled wall adrift in a wintry landscape. This room, as exposed to its threatening surroundings as the characters’ sad little lives, is possibly the most striking single set in the Washington Opera warehouse, and upon its appearance the production takes on a moving grandeur.
But what really cuts through the sugar-coating to the painful underpinnings of this tale is the Charlotte of (the appropriately named) Charlotte Hellekant. Act 3 is her showthe closest we come to getting inside this character’s head. Every quiet change of thought registers with ineffable sadness and a gradually spiraling sense of dread. Hellekant speaks volumes about Charlotte’s disappointing marriage and erotic longings for Werther with the simplest intonation, the barest gesture. This may be the act in which Werther returns from his long journey to confront her, but even his famous aria is less interesting than her reaction to it. As she amply showed in The Marriage of Figaro and Vanessa, Hellekant is one of our finest singing actors. The mezzo, with a voice set aglow by a shimmering, urgent vibrato, recalls Von Stade in her amber tone, and Fassbänder in the take-no-prisoners intensity of her acting.
This is not to slight the rest of a fine cast, headed by tenor Michael Myers (no, not that one). Myers is that rare breed of tenor who marries the kind of supple lyricism demanded by this material with enough heft to give the illusion that Werther is acting on his emotions rather than having his emotions acted upon. Strong, appealing work is also on hand from Thomas Paul, Nancy Allen Lundy, and Chris Owens as, respectively, Charlotte’s father, sister, and fiancé. And for all the reports of snowed-out rehearsals, the orchestra plays with passion and precision, the ever-admirable Cal Stewart Kellogg conducting the most urgently communicative Werther in recent memory. Kellogg could do this piece in his sleep, but provides one of the evening’s best reasons for staying awake.CP