BLO's "Werther": Love Means Forever Having to Say You're Sorry

Sandra Piques Eddy & Alex Richardson in "Werther"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

For the second production in its “love series” of operas, Boston Lyric Opera is presenting the 1892 work Werther, based on Geothe's 1774 epistolary novella, The Sorrows of Young Werther, with Music by Jules Massenet and Libretto by Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet and Georges Hartmann. Second in popularity to his Manon, it's not difficult to see why, as it remains a relentless dramatic downer, as is its literary source. Yet the score is so lush and glorious that it deserves to be seen and especially heard. As an added treat, this staging includes a piece of hitherto unheard text which was serendipitously discovered on the internet (but more about this later). Since it's not as frequently performed as other works that are often found in a company's repertoire (including Manon), a brief synopsis might be in order.

This version takes place in an arrondisement outside of Paris, updated in this production to the late 1920's, inspired by the filmmaker Jean Renoir's poetic realism style, in French with English surtitles. It begins as the widowed Bailiff (baritone James Demler) is teaching his children a Christmas carol (in July!) while his drinking biddies Schmidt (tenor Jon Jurgens) and Johann (baritone David McFerrin) look on, and his teen-aged daughter Sophie (soprano Rachele Gilmore) notes that her older sister Charlotte (mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy) is dressing for the local ball later that night. New man in town Werther (tenor Alex Richardson) is to escort Charlotte (“Lotte” in the novella) to the ball, because her intended, Albert (baritone John Hancock), whom she had promised her late mother to marry, is away. Werther falls in love with her, even though aware she is promised to Albert. When Albert returns, Werther is in despair. He continues to be so even after their wedding. Charlotte, confused about her own feelings, asks Werther to absent himself until the Christmas celebration. Upon Werther's return, they read the poem of Ossian about the reawakening of spring, and they briefly embrace before she runs off. Werther sends his servant to borrow Albert's pistols (but, oddly, in this version Sophie fills this role). Charlotte rushes to Werther's home but arrives too late. As the children are heard singing and laughing, the couple confess their love for one another and Werther dies. The novel ends with his funeral thus: “Workmen carried him. No clergyman attended.”

As the program notes, this is is a “tale of passion and angst, idealization and sacrifice” about a “romantic hero- sensitive, artistic uncompromising and stormily passionate”. Yet, given the text (that libretto-by-committee), the story becomes less about passion than it is about obsession. It's difficult to become emotionally involved, save for the lovely music Massenet provides. It helps to have such great acting singers such as Richardson in the title role, notably his fourth act aria, Porquoi me reveiller, and the beautifully-voiced Eddy as well, especially in her third act aria Va, laisse couler mes larmes. Demler is equally impressive, and both Gilmore and Hancock are fine, providing a touch of humor to the dour goings-on. As Conducted by BLO Musical Director David Angus, this becomes a thrilling experience. The Stage Direction by Crystal Manich, despite some questionable choices (the children are given such excessive stage business to accomplish that one expected them any minute to break into Do Re Mi from The Sound of Music), enhances the melodrama of the plot, with Werther found with a pistol to his chest not once but four times. The abstract Set Design by John Conklin helps to keep the tone of this piece, and even the Costume Design by Deborah Newhall contributes to it, as such details as Charlotte's dress, first brightly verdant, becoming gradually more colorless. The Lighting Design by Paul Hackenmueller is well done, and the Projection Design by Greg Emetaz is extraordinarily effective. As the program further notes, all the creative elements, particularly the video design, “mirror the hero's increasingly obsessive thoughts and devastating actions”.

One fascinating note concerns a very brief piece of text which Angus came across while preparing for this production. He disovered an online copy of the original manuscript of the orchestral score, in Massenet's own hand. Overlaying the Act 4 moment when a dying Werther finally kisses Charlotte, these unknown vocal lines had the two characters joining in with the music that plays at that moment. Angus noted that it in “glorious, full unison at the tops of their voices, and then breaking apart and weaving around each other’s music in sensuous counterpoint”, and described it as Puccini-like and a rarity in this work in that characters sing together, rather than in alternating, sung dialogue. He found these vocal lines were not included in any printed, published version of the score, suggesting they may never have been performed before by a major professional company. He and Manich, as well as the singers themselves, all fell in love with what this discovery added to the beauty and depth of the scene, and decided to include it in this performance.

But the opera offers much more than this unearthed moment. Imagined as a dreamlike flashback on the part of Werther, this production is a visual cornucopia that complements the composer's lyrical score. There are echoes of Wagner. Even moreso, there are constant reminders of Puccini in the more melodic sections. Audiences should surely embrace this truly gorgeous score in BLO's current complex presentation. And, it might be added, unusual for opera, the female heroine lives to see another day.

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