Monday, May 23, 2011

Werther at WCO

Washington Concert Opera offered a very fine presentation of Massenet's Werther Sunday--a work which I'm sorry to say I was relatively unfamiliar with beyond some assorted Youtube clips, a review here and there, and the occasional fits of snark it seems to inspire. And indeed, the first two Acts really don't do too much more than hang a lot of balls-out tenor writing on the fairly static and unmoving story about how Werther is a total bummer. But the revelation in Acts 3 & 4 that his love for Charlotte is not unrequited makes things far more interesting. Sorry, Werther fans, if this should be obvious--it's very possible Massenet is dropping this plot all through Act II and I just failed to pick it up. But regardless, the drama that comes into focus in the second half is unexpectedly taut, and by the end, quite moving.
In fact, I found Werther much more emotionally direct and engaging than Manon, where one's sympathy for the central character suffers a lot by the end on account of the relentless slut-shaming. Clearly Werther has a better time in Europe these days, but I was surprised to find it loses out to Manon by a hefty Margin judging by the Met Opera Database scorecard--a whopping 257 to 73.
Mind you, that discrepancy may have something to do with the relative paucity of leading men who can make Werther an event in America's diva-oriented opera culture. And so it was the WCO audience's good fortune to have Giuseppe Filianoti, in superb voice, bring his Werther to GW' Lisner's Hall this past Sunday.
I last saw Filianoti live in 2005, during his spectacular run of Lucia's at the Met, and since then, the heartbreaking story of his battle with thyroid cancer has read like the script to one of those tearjerkers about a young gifted opera singer facing adversity, finding out who his real friends are, and ultimately returning in triumph (why can't we have this? why?). I've heard some broadcasts in that period that definitely revealed his challenges, and indeed, the Rigoletto's that just wrapped up at the Met may have demonstrated that he is not entirely out of the woods if caught on the wrong night.
But forget that noise. Filianoti's Werther was a thing of triumph through and through. After the slightest hint of a warm-up period, he locked into form, offering page after page of ardent, thrilling vocalism--indeed, until costar Jennifer Larmore got some real stage time in Act III it was more or less a matter of impatiently waiting for Filianoti to shuffle on morosely from stage left and open that golden throat. More than just the unique beauty of his sound, though, Filianoti possesses some of that old time magick I mention from time to time. His sheer commitment raises the stakes of everything that happens onstage.
Oh, there were a few quibbles--the high A that closes high B towards the end of the second Act (h/t Downey...that'll teach me to be fancy) didn't work out so hot and, unless I was misinterpreting some death noises, his stamina flagged a tad at the very end. Also, and I may be wrong about this, but I suspect his open Italian vowels may not have played well with the French at a few points, producing some off-message sounds here and there. But again: quibbles.
Filianoti had a great partner in Jennifer Larmore, who I don't think I've ever seen before. Her moody, back-to-back arias at the beginning of Act III demonstrated her capability to create a stunning range of colors with her by turns airy and dark-hued mezzo. Throughout the second half she matched Filianoti in passion, realizing Charlotte's tortured frustration and pity for Werther with biting intensity.
The rest of the cast was strong as well, particularly Joelle Harvey's skillful, big-voiced presentations of Sophie's difficult coloratura material and Timothy Mix's thoughtful Albert. Antony Walker led a fine performance in the "pit" from the WCO band, bringing a lot of gravity and transparency to the effects Massenet uses to build the emotion behind his story, and making the pretty parts plenty pretty, too.
Update: Here's Joe Banno in the Post, and Downey's take is here.

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