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Opera audiences have a higher tolerance for melodramatics than most. Some forlorn fool spends two hours bemoaning his unrequited love before killing himself and nobody bats an eye. So when the audience starts giggling as the title character in Werther wails in despair while flopping around on stage like a fish, it’s a bad sign.

This isn’t to belittle Francesco Meli, who is superb in his Washington National Opera debut as Werther. His tenor is rich and fluid, able to build each whimper to an arresting crescendo. Nor is Chris Alexander’s direction deficient: There are some clever inventions to break up all the moping, notably an awkward dinner party for the intermezzo between the third and fourth acts. And the orchestra, led by Emmanuel Villaume and featuring the woodwinds, gives lush treatment to Jules Massenet’s beautiful score. Yet no amount of talent changes the fact that this is a story of someone who gets dumped and then doesn’t stop whining about it for four acts, even after being shot through the heart.

Blame Goethe if you want. Ultimately, Washington National Opera’s Werther is a pretty good production of a not-so-great opera.

The German dramatist’s 1774 semi-autobiography The Sorrows of Young Werther provided the source material for what was by the 1880s, when Massenet wrote his opera, a quaint work of balls-out Romanticism as that era was giving way to Modernism. The French composer set his opera a century before his time; this staging is pushed forward to the 20th century, for no clear reason. The sad tale unfolds at an idyllic country estate, the kind where farmers lounge around in dinner jackets all day drinking wine and no one seems to do any actual farm work. Michael Yeargan’s set design, originally for Opera Australia, plants amber waves of grain in the background, evoking pastoral simplicity and red-blooded American—-or, in this case, German—-values.

As for the story, it’s basically over by Act 1. Werther is the forlorn fool, a poet no less, whose sensitive side is on display from the very beginning: an unintentionally funny ode to Nature he delivers while rolling on a carpet of astroturf. He meets Charlotte (Sonia Ganassi) while visiting her father’s estate and promptly falls head over heels. Charlotte, while clearly smitten by Werther, informs him she is engaged to Albert (Andrew Foster-Williams), whom she subsequently marries. That’s really it. The rest is just Werther reacting with increasingly dramatic expressions of wussiness: weeping in a doorway, brooding on a bench, writing suicidal notes to Charlotte, eventually committing suicide (note: Goethe didn’t actually do this before writing his book).

One can’t say there isn’t some pretty singing along the way. Meli is especially wonderful in Werther’s lamentation, “Pourquoi me réveiller?” in Act 3. As Charlotte, mezzo-soprano Ganassi’s darker voice doesn’t always stand out in duets with Meli or soprano Emily Albrink, playing her chirpy teenage sister Sophie. Albrink is, incidentally, a bright spot in the opera—-literally, as the stage lights up whenever she appears. Another is the children’s chorus that pops in occasionally to sing Christmas carols, oblivious to the adults engaging in paroxysms of self pity around them. Bass-baritone Foster-Williams’ Albert contrasts well with Meli’s emotive Werther; his delivery is more declarative, depicting a partner who is at once more stable and more boring. But when the alternative is an unhinged stalker with a death wish, sometimes boring is better.

Werther plays at the Kennedy Center through May 27. In French with English surtitles. $25 – $300. (800) 444-1324.

Photo by Scott Suchman