OPERA NEWS - Werther
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Lyric Opera of Chicago

In Review Chicago Werther HDL 113
Polenzani, Koch and character double (on floor) in Lyric Opera's Werther
© Robert Kusel 2013

Massenet's achingly beautiful Werther reentered Lyric Opera of Chicago's repertory on November 11 after an absence of thirty-five years, in a mounting distinguished by a pair of extraordinary performances in the leading roles and a fascinating, if controversial, reimagining of the piece by Lyric's production team.

Matthew Polenzani delivered a glorious account of the title role, an assignment he was clearly born to sing. His liquescent tenor remained rounded and golden throughout its range, while maintaining an impressive reserve of power for the climaxes of "Rêve! Extase! Bonheur!" "Pourquoi me réveiller" was graced by an exquisitely calibrated diminuendo on the first high A-sharp, while the second was given in full voice. Sophie Koch, in her American debut, easily verified her international supremacy as Charlotte. In a very few places, her lovely lyric mezzo soured a trifle when pressure was applied above the staff; elsewhere all was consistently ravishing of timbre and unusually affecting in characterization.

Francisco Negrin's mounting — a coproduction with San Francisco Opera, where it was first seen in 2010 — was a revelation or an indulgence, depending on one's point of view. Designer Louis Désiré reserved the downstage area for Werther's rooms — a claustrophobic dwelling in which the protagonist remained onstage for virtually the entire opera, obsessively scrawling his inamorata's name onto the walls. A raised, steel-encircled platform stood beyond, where the Bailiff's home was represented by a conglomeration of trunks into which his grieving family organized their deceased mother's belongings. A forest of grey, twisted branches dominated above. Désiré's eighteenth-century-style costumes were beautifully rendered. 

There were some marvelous directorial touches. A poignant piece of business in which various family members recognized their mother's scent on her shawl when packing it away was ineffably moving, and Albert gratefully emerged here as a fully drawn, vitally sympathetic character. His horrified discovery of Werther's shrine to his wife upon stumbling into the poet's man-cave registered very effectively. The Act III confrontation was staged as Charlotte's ruminative nocturnal fantasy, while the final scene presented Werther, in the person of one of several character doubles, as already dead on arrival, leaving Charlotte to interact with his spirit. There were a few missteps; presenting the Bailiff as an abusive alcoholic is questionable, and though Negrin has logically defended his decision to have Charlotte read Werther's letters directly to Albert, the idea does not work particularly well onstage. Traditionalists may validly deplore a lack of Gallic romanticism here; but overall Negrin's treatment presented the opera in an interesting and often illuminating way, if not always to the letter of the libretto.

In his Lyric Opera debut, Craig Verm displayed an arrestingly vibrant baritone and made good capital of the enhanced dramatic opportunity afforded him as Albert. Kiri Deonarine was altogether enchanting as Sophie, her high soprano giving off scintillating glimmers of coloratura sunshine amid the surrounding gloom. Tenor John Irvin brought a delightfully fresh timbre to Schmidt and was sturdily partnered by David Govertsen's resonant Johann. Philip Kraus's Bailiff occasionally seemed to be channeling Dr. Bartolo, but he delivered the vocal goods, while Cecelia Hall and Will Liverman rounded out the cast as Käthchen and Brühlmann.

Andrew Davis was the sensitive conductor. Jan Baker supplied the famous obbligato on alto saxophone. spacer


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