Massenet’s “Werther” at the Washington National Opera

It’s always encouraging to find Emmanuel Villaume in the orchestra pit, especially so when the repertoire is French. Villaume conducted last night’s performance of Massenet’s Werther, and the orchestra of the Washington National Opera never sounded so good. Massenet is easily condescended to, as a cheap romantic and theatrical fluff artist. But his operas are full of surprises, evocative and innovative orchestration and dramatic idiosyncrasies. Villaume underscored the rich coloristic elements in Massenet’s score, and found almost expressionistic power in its expostulations. The brass snarled, the strings produced haunting chorale-like sounds, as if channeling Bruckner at a whisper, and the woodwinds (including the saxophone) were free to play with engaging personal freedom. The extended orchestral preludes and interludes that serve as psychological bridges between acts and scenes were some of the best things all evening.


Massenet gets hammered for his distortion of Goethe’s original, and the distortion is so profound that it’s best—if possible—to forget about the 18th-century novella when watching the 19th-century opera. In the Massenet, Albert becomes a bit of a thug and Werther and Lotte are equally in love from the beginning, forcing the latter into a classic conflict of duty and desire.

Most egregious, in the last act, while Werther lingers on from his self-inflicted gun shot wound, the two engage in an entirely superfluous final love scene.  And there are absurdities in the text that reflect a hybrid of Goethe and the French team that wrote the libretto. In act three Werther reminisces about his friendship with Lotte, and the time they spent together (a vestige of the novella); but the libretto has them fall in love almost immediately, and whatever companionship they enjoyed is lost between the interstices of the First and Second acts.

 No matter. Despite one of the most static first act’s in opera, Massanet’s score is often exquisite, and despite having one of the best known endings in all of literature, the denouement is still shocking. Unfortunately, while the cast can’t be faulted on purely vocal grounds, none of the singers really inhabited his or her character.  Francesco Meli’s Werther seemed cobbled together from rote vocal and dramatic gestures. He has the voice, but not the dramatic sensibility for the role. Sonia Ganassi’s Charlotte wanted more vocal heft, but the mezzo rose to occasion in Act III, especially in the monologue that opens the scene.

 Michael Yeargan’s set design, especially the transparent walls that fused together an 18th century drawing room with the natural world outside, was particularly well done. But Barila’s decision to costume the singers as if for a stage production of The Great Gatsby (frocks for Charlotte were particularly unflattering) was arbitrary, like so many decisions about updating opera. Charlotte’s sister Sophie (well sung by Emily Albrink) became a flapper rather than a flighty teenager. Werther looked dumpy in his striped sweater. And the basic tension between the enlightenment and the romantic sensibility explored in the original novella was lost by the updating. Why? But then there’s never any rationale for these things.

 So go for the orchestra. And for Massenet. There were a distressing number of empty seats on Friday night, and it would be a shame if anyone concluded from that a lack of interest in the magnificent operas of Massenet.

Credit: Francesco Meli as Werther and Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte. Photo by Scott Suchman


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