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Minnesota Opera's Werther, with Constantinescu and Valenti
© Michal Daniel 2012
The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe's 1774 epistolary novel, touched off a wave of copycat suicides. Jules Massenet's 1892 Werther did nothing of the kind: suicide notwithstanding, it's a safe, proscenium-encased confection, written for the box office. But Minnesota Opera's new production, the first mounting of a Massenet opera in the company's half-century-long history, found a soupçon of grit amid the sugar.
Kevin Newbury's staging (seen Jan. 28) transferred the action from Goethe's day to Massenet's — the smokestack Europe of the late nineteenth century. There were no Fragonard-like images to beguile the eye; nearly the entire drama was played against the backdrop of a grim industrial landscape. In these circumstances, Werther, with his fervent hymns to Nature, seemed not the harbinger of a new poetic age, an era in which human feeling would be prized above all else, but rather a throwback — a quill-and-ink sensibility adrift in an iPhone world. This impression was reinforced by Allen Moyer's metallic prison-house of a set, a literal "iron cage" that confined and constrained the singers. Jessica Jahn's sometimes-unflattering costumes and D. M. Wood's sober lighting drove the point home. The performance was a study in incongruity, with music and stage picture in almost perpetual tension.
Local favorite James Valenti has everything the role of Werther requires, vocal stamina and respectable-sounding French included. Betraying no fear of the high A-sharp in "Pourquoi me réveiller," he sang the aria with evident awareness of its dramatic function, and without tenorial mannerisms. Against the odds, he was at his most affecting in his twelve-minute love–death scene. (Newbury, in keeping with his program of de-sentimentalizing the work, had Valenti shoot himself in full view of the audience.)
As Charlotte, Roxana Constantinescu was similarly distinguished, her phrases long-breathed, her dark-hued mezzo encompassing both charm and chill. In the moonlight scene, she seemed aglow, and her letter scene was a marvel, its shifting emotions vividly conveyed. Angela Mortellaro — soon to be a graduate of the Minnesota company's Resident Artist program — made a pert, ear-catching Sophie. Gabriel Preisser was an effective Albert.
Austrian conductor Christoph Campestrini elicited playing of unaccustomed lightness and transparency from the orchestra but was handicapped in Massenet's lusher moments by a paucity of string sound.