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In Review > North America

Werther

WASHINGTON, DC
Washington National Opera
5/12/12

In Review DC Wether hdl 812
WNO's Werther stars, Meli and Ganassi
© Scott Suchman/WNO 2012

The saxophone sounds that spice the orchestration of Massenet's Werther seemed doubly significant in Washington National Opera's production, updated to the jazz age, complete with cloche hats and a hint or two of flappers. Since intensely romantic feelings and passion-related suicides have been known to occur in every era, the scenic change worked well enough. (Michael Yeargan designed the smallish, stylishly minimal set, originally for Opera Australia.) The music-making on May 12 at the Kennedy Center proved even more persuasive.

Of particular note was the house debut of Francesco Meli in the title role. This was vocalism of a high order — tender, even creamy in tone and unfailingly tasteful in phrasing. Aside from a strained high note or two, his voice soared easily in the most dramatic spots but was all the more affecting when reigned in to a gentle purr. Soft dynamics were plentiful and magical, enhancing the text and deepening the character. Meli's acting also rang true. As Charlotte, Sonia Ganassi produced limited tonal coloring early on but gradually added nuance to match her partner's expressive ardor. Her theatrical effectiveness was limited by costuming and hair-styling choices that made her look more matronly than magnetic, but she nonetheless conveyed Charlotte's emotional turmoil potently in the last two acts.

Julien Robbins's warm, vividly etched singing and equally detailed characterization made the Bailiff an endearing presence. Emily Albrink was the bright-voiced, dramatically engaging Sophie. Deftly molding his warm, flexible bass-baritone, Andrew Foster-Williams caught Albert's shifts from openhearted to snooty and icy. Tim Augustin (Schmidt), Jason Buckwalter (Bruhlmann), Maria Dolan Barnes (Katchen) and Kenneth Kellogg (Johann) fleshed out their supporting roles tellingly. Members of the Washington National Opera Children's Chorus demonstrated vocal discipline and charming acting skills. In the pit, Emmanuel Villaume's ardent conducting kept things flowing and involving, with delicious rubato along the way (exquisitely in "Pourquoi me réveiller"), and he had the orchestra responding vibrantly.

Director Chris Alexander brought alternately fascinating and problematic ideas to the staging. Some of the small, atmospheric touches were the most welcome, such as a game of badminton for the kids against the background of a subtly lit wheat field. In Act III, a Christmas Eve party at the antiseptically white home of Albert and Charlotte added valuable tension, especially for the handing over of the pistols. But having Charlotte interrupted by arriving guests as she attempted to run off to save Werther from himself was only powerful the first time, not the second and third. And the last scene suffered from too many ups and downs for the dying Werther, setting off titters in the house. In the end, though, there was enough theatrical sense and sensibility to match the evening's admirable musical strengths. spacer

TIM SMITH

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