In its second production of the season, San Francisco Opera presented one of the most beloved of international opera stars, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas, in the title role of “Werther” by romantic French composer Jules Massenet. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote sang the part of Charlotte with baritone Brian Mulligan in the role of Albert. Appearing as Charlotte’s sister Sophie, newcomer Heidi Stober proved to be a solid pillar of this co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Massenet’s music came across as strikingly romantic, complex and subtle as led by French guest conductor Emmanuel Villaume. The only plausible explanation for why Massenet never rose to the huge popularity enjoyed by his Italian contemporaries, is that his operas are largely based on story lines that may be qualified as dull by comparison. The creative genius of stage director Francisco Negrin, however, breathed new life into this “Werther” despite its tedious tale.
The story depicts the most banal love triangle imaginable, all three of whose sides are pathetically passive. Charlotte is engaged to Albert, whose friend Werther is obsessed with Charlotte, who is fully aware but does nothing about the whole situation. While Werther publicly denies his crush, he continues to stalk Charlotte, who is somehow flattered by her not-so-secret admirer, but proceeds to marry Albert anyway in order to keep a promise to her deceased mother.
Werther’s obsession reaches pathological proportions. Charlotte soon realizes that she, too, loves Werther. After a brief declaration of mutual affection, the two consummate their love standing up against a tree. While any average man would be ecstatic to discover that his love is reciprocal, Werther instead proceeds to shoot himself and leaves Charlotte with a guilt-ridden conscience not only for having committed adultery, but for causing his death.
To add insult to injury, his dying wish is for Charlotte to drag his body a considerable distance and bury him since he cannot receive a proper church burial after having committed suicide.
The New York Times has described Ramón Vargas as a “creamy-voiced tenor.” However, Vargas’s smooth tones and rich timbre in this “Werther” by far surpassed the realm of dairy. A voice of such purity and finesse deserves the creation of a new qualifier – perhaps “Ramónian” or, better yet, “Vargâsque.”
One of the unique characteristics of Vargas is that it is impossible to decide which is his most spellbinding scene or aria in any given opera. His deeply moving aria “Ô Nature, pleine de grâce” (“Oh Graceful Nature”) of Act 1, was matched – not outdone – by his heartbreaking “Pourquoi me réveiller” (“Why Awaken Me”) of Act 3.
Alice Coote was equally captivating as Charlotte and made a worthy partner to her illustrious co-star Vargas. Her perfectly nuanced rendition of “Va, laisse couler mes larmes” (“Go, Let My Tears Flow”) was one of the opera’s most memorable moments. Coote’s delicate voice delivered a certain verse of the aria which rang ominously true – “The tears we hold back can only fall inside.”
The stationary set consisted of three rows of trees in center stage, with partially metallic-looking trunks. A banner with the image of green leaves was suspended over the trees to indicate summer, later replaced with a banner of brown leaves for fall. The bare branches with no banner represented winter. Off to one side, a large pile of luggage, chests and boxes of different shapes and sizes (one containing a disassembled grand piano) doubled as a staircase from which characters would enter and exit the stage.
Opposite the mound of clutter, the stage was bordered with an L-shaped brushed aluminum partition, strangely resembling an airport luggage carousel. Just below the pile of boxes was Werther’s bedroom in what looked like a dark basement. Costumes were consistent with Goethe’s 18th century story, which Massenet used as the basis for the opera.
“Werther” is on stage at the War Memorial Opera House through October 1.