Massenet's "Werther" is perhaps the greatest tenor vehicle in the French operatic literature. Tenors love "Werther" because it gives them unparalleled opportunities to do what they do best: Sing all night long about how desperately in love they are and how unhappy it makes them. It is to the tenor what Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is to the actor.
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, when a production of this nTC opera is dominated by the mezzo-soprano who is the hero's love interest and source of misery. But that is exactly what happened on Tuesday evening when Charlotte Hellekant sang Charlotte to Michael Myers' Werther in the Washington Opera production of the work in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center. Myers is a fine tenor. But as for Hellekant . . . well, Cecilia Bartoli and Jennifer Larmore had better watch their backs.
Hellekant may or may not have a voice equal to those two comparably young superstar mezzos. But -- except on records -- I have never heard as convincing a Charlotte. Her charm never cloyed, her beauty of tone was unfailing and her sense of detail encompassed everything in the role: from the heartbreak of her realization, in the "Clair de Lune," that she will never be Werther's, to the extraordinary, almost quiet, intensity she brought to the reading of his letters. This Swedish-born, American-trained singer also happens to be a superb actress with looks -- tall, slim, and delicately featured -- that make it hard to take one's eyes off her.
One can only pity Myers, whose misfortune it was to sing opposite Hellekant. He has a strong tenor voice, but his sound -- his soft and loud singing were rather over-emphatic -- became monotonous and he does not yet possess the nuance needed for "Werther." He was a bit of a bull in a china shop.
As was Chris Owens as Albert, the man whom Charlotte feels obliged to marry. His youthful baritone boomed a little too much for so domestic a role. Nancy Allen Lundy's Sophie was captivating: disarming in her innocence and unimpeded in her mastery of the role's coloratura. As Charlotte and Sophie's father, bass Thomas Paul showed that he still has few equals when it comes to portraying kindly older men.
This revival of the Washington Opera's 1990 production, directed by Roman Terleckyj and designed by Zack Brown, looks as great and runs as smoothly as it did then. Conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg's work in the pit with the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra never dawdled.
Performances of "Werther" continue through Feb. 11. For tickets and information, call (202) 416-7800.