Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Sunday November 11, 2012 9:19PM CST
Lyric makes clear the worth of Massenet’s neglected ‘Werther’
BY ANDREW PATNER
Tenor Matthew Polenzani and mezzo Sophie Koch in Massenet's Werther at the Civic Opera House. | Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media
◆ Through Nov. 26
◆ Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
◆ Tickets, $34-$234
◆ (312) 332-2244; lyricopera.org
In exploring darker corners of the repertoire in terms of both subject matter and popularity, Lyric Opera of Chicago has actually been hitting three for three this season.
And with three operas that range tremendously from fin-de-siècle Austro-German angst (Elektra by Richard Strauss) to brooding Verdi, unusually without hit tunes (Simon Boccanegra), to the current heavy dose of French ennui with Jules Massenet’s Werther, music director Andrew Davis has entered a period of his career marked by tremendous flexibility, capturing depths and styles of genres not always associated with him. After this month’s run of Werther completes his successful fall trilogy, he is back in February with Wagner (Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg), another composer where Chicago was the site of Davis fully coming into his own.
This 1892 French “opéra lyrique,” an adaptation of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” has not been seen at Lyric in almost 35 years, and both productions in the 1970s featured the modern master of the genre tenor Alfredo Kraus in the title role. (Mezzos Tatiana Troyanos and Yvonne Minton played Charlotte, the object of Werther’s obsessive attention.) In a way it had both suffered and benefitted from the thinness of Massenet’s other works. Such scented, soupy concoctions as Thaïs and Hérodiade might have pulled Massenet’s reputation down, but they’ve also made many forget just how effective intelligent singers and conducting of a strong production of Werther can be.
Hometown tenor Matthew Polenzani, an alumnus of Lyric’s Ryan Center training program, has become well-established in this sort of repertoire. Remarkably, Sunday afternoon’s opening performance marked his role début as the self-tormenting Werther. He was up to every aspect, from his Act 1 outbursts when he first sees and falls instantly in love with Charlotte to his physical expressions, wholly non-clichéd, of inner resentment and hope to his famous Act 3 aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller.”
Remarkably, too, French mezzo Sophie Koch as Charlotte was making not only her Lyric but her U.S. début. Hailed for her Mozart in Salzburg and as Fricka in the new Paris “Ring” Cycle, she is a total singing actress, attractive in every way with a voice that is rich yet as gentle as it needs to be. As Charlotte’s little sister Sophie, second-year Ryan Center soprano Kiri Deonarine has a French sound and quality, with a mystical, narrow vibrato, down so perfectly that you might have thought you were listening to a rare and valuable recording of the 1920s.
Each of these characters moves through this new co-production (first seen in San Francisco in 2010) by Barcelona-based Francisco Negrin as if in a set of interlocking and overlapping dreams. At first it can be puzzling and annoying to wonder why character A is present during character B’s solo meditation and vice versa. But inside the brilliant physical dreamscapes of French set and costume designer Louis Désiré and onetime Lyric house lighting designer Duane Schuler, you see how Negrin is taking his characters very seriously, well beyond the wall engravings they are so often presented as. No one, I think, will ever figure out what to do with Werther’s endless Act 4 death scene, long the stereotype in both fiction and opera of the suicide of the young romantic. But Negrin’s idea actually allows Werther and Charlotte to sing standing up and to move back and forth between their psychological and physical selves.
Web-certified American “barihunk” Craig Verm succeeds in making Charlotte’s intended and then husband Albert three-dimensional as well, and among the Ryan Center singers in small roles, first-year tenor John Irvin made a strong and characterful debut. Veteran character baritone Philip Kraus was fine in the thankless (and needless) role of the sisters’ father.
With Davis and the ever-rejuvenating Lyric Orchestra providing the musical support and context -- weaving Wagner style in lightly, giving Puccini harmonic material -- this two hours and 45 minutes in the theatre rehabilitates a work that turns out to be too neglected and maligned.