`Werther' strikes a sad, but good chord

OperaReview

November 12, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Can hyper-romanticism still strike a chord in a post-modernist world? Sure, especially if that chord is from Jules Massenet's opera Werther. In 1892, the French composer transformed a literary landmark of German romanticism, Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, into a work brimming with exquisite torment. His music shimmers, shudders and shouts in supremely lyrical fashion, making it possible to believe utterly in this sad tale of obsessive love.

For a long time, Massenet owed his fame almost exclusively to his earlier Manon, about another doomed romance, but in recent decades, Werther has enjoyed rightful popularity. In many places, at least. Locally, the Baltimore Opera Company, which has other Massenet pieces in its repertoire, has never offered Werther. But over the weekend, Opera Vivente gave it an ambitious staging that managed to convey much of the work's beauty and strength.

There were inevitable compromises. This is, after all, a chamber-sized company that performs in a hall at Emmanuel Episcopal Church not designed for operatic purposes. Werther, although a fundamentally intimate story, has plenty of grandness, especially in orchestration. That instrumental component could not be fully realized by the 15 or so instrumentalists crammed into a corner of the hall, playing a reduced arrangement of the original score. Still, conductor JoAnn Kulesza coaxed a good deal of sound (not all of it entirely accurate) from the players as she shaped Sunday afternoon's performance with a good ear for its expressive ebb and flow.

Werther offers colorful possibilities for staging, given a plot progression that moves from summer and light in the first act, through autumnal shades in the second and on to a dark Christmas Eve for the third and fourth. Paul Christensen's minimal set left much to the imagination, but provided effective atmosphere for the last two scenes. Norah Worthington's costume design, which placed the action more in Massenet's 19th century than in Goethe's 18th, filled in the visual side of things nicely.

What counts most, of course, is the singing, and here Opera Vivente was on generally solid ground with its cast of young professionals. In the title role, Kenneth Gayle sometimes suggested a work-in-progress - his bright, powerful tenor needed more technical refinement around the edges and more variety of dynamics; his acting tended to be stiff, relying too often on an upraised right arm for emphasis. But his was a remarkable performance nonetheless.

Gayle rode Massenet's most poignant melodic lines with passionate conviction, tapping into the character's soul-consuming despair. There was also something in the fierce concentration of his gaze that drove home just how far into the deep end of romantic illusion Werther had plunged.

In the first act, Fenlon Lamb's portrayal of Charlotte did not provide enough charm to explain why Werther would fall so hopelessly, insanely in love with the bailiff's daughter. But in the last two acts, when Charlotte tries to make sense of lingering feelings for Werther and her duties as the wife of bland, bourgeois Albert, Lamb did telling work, vocally and theatrically.

Christopher Austin, as the Bailiff, filled the hall with sturdy, ringing tones. Amy Bonn's fluttery, mostly on-target soprano fit the personality of Charlotte's younger sister Sophie nicely, but I wish more of her words had registered. (Most of the cast could have articulated the text, in Amanda Holden's workable English translation, more clearly.) James Rogers (Albert), Steven Goodman (Johann) and John Weber (Schmidt) did vibrant work. So did the sextet of children's voices.

John Bowen's straightforward direction kept the action flowing more or less smoothly. In Act 3, when the would-be lovers confront their emotions to devastating effect, Bowen provided a particularly deft touch. He also slipped into the church during the second act to play the off-stage organ part, a welcome bit of sonic luxury.

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