Monday, May 14, 2012

Werther at WNO

WNO kicked off its last production of the season Saturday night with an elegant and musically distinguished Werther. We heard the opera live for the first time last year in Washington Concert Opera's winning concert presentation, featuring a triumphant Giuseppe Filianoti. That was something of an eye opener for me--I have always found Manon a bit stilted and in danger of coming off like a pedantic 19th century after-school special, by contrast Werther is an emotionally intimate work with great moral ambiguity and sympathy at its core.

For this production, WNO is offering a major league Werther in Genoese tenor Francesco Meli. Contrary to his bio (time for an update, dude) he is NOT appearing in the new Vegas themed Rigoletto at the Met next year but IS indeed going to be in the DiDonato Maria Stuarda (his Met debut was in the 2010 Rigoletto run). His is a great, unapologetic chunk of voice, most easily at home in a booming forte but shot through with enough ping to make everything go down smoothly if not always with a great deal of finesse. There is some other baggage--Acts I & II suffered from a lot of unnecessary swooping for effect and a congenital habit of staying just behind the beat. I think this was supposed to be Werther's "sad voice" but it was mostly just tiresome, and he thankfully cooled it a bit as the evening went on. Like his compatriot Filianoti, he also has a penchant for the big stage gesture i.e. throwing himself at regular intervals onto benches, door frames, the floor. I don't mind this sort of thing so much, but it did inspire some inappropriate titters from the audience (stage direction which had him way too mobile during the death scene did not help matters).

Sonia Ganassi contributed a passionate Charlotte--her exquisite, cool focused tone an excellent fit for an Act III monologue that tended to bring out Charlotte's great pity for Werther. Andrew Foster Williams offered a robust, menacing Albert, with an ample, ramrod baritone. Emily Albrink offered a solid if not terribly distinctive Sophie.

The production, originally from Opera Australia, is lightly updated to circa a drab, conformist small town 1950s 1920s. Presenting the town and its characters with more familiar cues is a particularly effective choice. Werther's tragedy is about more than one misguided soul, he is also a casualty of the bourgeois society that can't abide his transgression in loving Charlotte and his alienating depression. Charlotte refuses him not only out of duty, but out of fear of sharing his fate, embodied in Albert's threatening presence. Acts I and II share a versatile set which suggests both exterior and interior, beautifully registering the change in season. The Act III and IV sets turn inward and lose the openness of the first half, first in the oppressive white living and dining room of Charlotte's house, a reflection of her empty marriage to Albert, and then in the dirty flat where Werther takes his life.

Emmanual Villaume led a warm, masterful account of the score in the pit, carefully shading his tempi to bring out emotional nuance while never letting things sag. That said, he seemed to pull some punches on a few of the climaxes where one might prefer more go-for-broke milking.

Update: And here are reviews from Downey and Midgette.

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