Matthew Polenzani† †
Sir Andrew Davis
† current member, Ryan Opera Center
† † alumnus/ alumna, Ryan Opera Center
Francisco Negrin, director of Werther, shares the inspiration for his original production which was recognized for its “innovative staging” (San Francisco Chronicle)—incorporating video projection to give us insight into the fascinating and evocative world of Massenet’s anti-hero.
“People want to put Werther in the same bag with Puccini, but Massenet is a more subtle composer and psychologist as well. The story of Werther can seem a bit over the top and simple, but the music gives us amazingly precise psychological information throughout.
The main difference between this and other productions is that I show very clearly that the love story between Werther and Charlotte starts off as a fantasy of Werther. There is initially no relationship between them. She’s just a girl he sees from a distance and he then builds a fantasy within his mind. It’s the story of a man falling in love with the idea of falling in love. In later scenes, he describes events they’ve experienced together—“we used to sit by the harpsichord, used to read those novels,”—but there's nowhere in the opera where these things are happening. When you look at the chronology, is there a time when those things could have happened?
So this production features a set that clearly separates two worlds: the world where Werther lives in his student accommodations, where he has a sort of fantasy relationship with this girl he hardly knows; and the real world, where he gets to meet her and tries to start something – but she’s not really interested, she’s about to get married. She never says anything against her intended, Albert—in fact, there’s some very beautiful love music for Albert, so it’s clear that he loves her. I don’t think there's any indication that she’s not perfectly content with marrying Albert, though it may not be a great passionate thing.
It is not until the letter scene when Charlotte has these incredibly passionate letters that Werther has been sending her for a year—and she says to Albert, “Look at all of the letters I’ve been getting.” At that point, she does not yet realize she is in love with Werther, so she sees no reason not to show them to Albert. But as she’s reading them to her husband, she realizes she is actually falling in love with this admirer who’s so poetic and so unlike her husband, and Albert watches, devastated, as his wife basically leaves him.
Throughout the production, video imagery serves as a visual collage of Werther’s dreams and fantasies. We haven’t changed a single word of text, but we have reimagined the work by staging the subtext, making everything much deeper, and much more psychologically true.”
The Soul of a Poet
Massenet’s heartrending Werther makes its long-awaited return to Lyric
By Roger Pines
He’s obsessed with a woman he can’t have – that, in a nutshell, is Werther, Jules Massenet’s grandly romantic drama that Lyric Opera is presenting for the first time in more than three decades. This late-19th-century gem abounds with glorious melodies, but it also memorably explores the protagonists’ inner longings. The anguish of both Werther and Charlotte truly speaks to anyone who has ever been in love. Lyric’s Werther will boast passionate interpreters in conductor Sir Andrew Davis, tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, and mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch as Charlotte (debut), in Francisco Negrin’s provocative new production.
The opera’s agonized title character took Europe by storm in Goethe’s famous novel, the literary sensation of 1774. In Wetzlar, near Frankfurt, the poet Werther (pron. “Vair-TAIR”) meets Charlotte and is entranced by her, only to learn that she promised her dying mother that she’d marry another man. A few months later, when Werther meets the now-married Charlotte, she begs him to leave Wetzlar, but suggests he return at Christmastime. He does so and, when he comes to see Charlotte, she resists his advances – but barely! Devastated, he borrows one of her husband’s pistols and shoots himself. He dies, but not before hearing Charlotte finally declare her love. Too little – and much too late.
Werther will be a tour de force for Polenzani, whose eagerly awaited role debut follows triumphs at Lyric as Roméo and Hoffmann. The celebrated American tenor characterizes Massenet’s title character as “a deep, old soul” (that all-important word “soul” comes up frequently when Polenzani discusses this opera). “When I say he’s an old soul, I mean he’s a deeply spiritual guy. He seems like a guy whose spirit, whose soul, is kind of in peril – a guy who would want you to reach out and fix him.”
Audiences at Lyric’s 2011 Millennium Park concert got a taste of Polenzani’s Werther when he sang this opera’s “hit tune” – the soaring aria in Act Three, “Pourquoi me reveiller” (in which Werther reads to Charlotte some verses he had translated in happier days). Polenzani finds “a tortured quality” in the aria. “He’s baring his soul, and he’s using poetry to do it. There are a lot of possibilities for an audience member as you’re listening to what he’s saying and imagining how those things might be affecting your own life. It can grab hold of your soul.”
That aria is the only portion of Werther that Polenzani has previously performed. As he’s immersed himself in the music, “I’ve been thinking, ‘Why haven’t I been singing his hymn to nature [the exquisite entrance aria]? How did I miss out on that?’” He feels the same way about the role’s two despairing monologues in Act Two. “I listen to the music and say, ‘I can’t believe I never sang this – it’s SO GREAT!” But Polenzani is confident as he prepares, knowing that the role has come to him at exactly the right time.
In Polenzani’s view, Werther’s appeal comes from “the spiritual side – from being able to look at the entirety of life through his eyes. I believe Werther believes that Charlotte is his soul mate, and that there’s no other person with whom he could possibly be as happy. Maybe Charlotte comes to that realization at the end as well, which is lovely and heartbreaking. I think he’s caught between a rock and a hard place, because once you realize that the one person who is there on earth for you is unattainable, what’s the point of going on? One can argue that if she’s unattainable, she can’t be your soul mate! I hear that argument, but at the same time he’s the one who’s living it. He’s stuck.”
The desperate longing of this opera’s central couple emerges through lushly romantic music that strongly attracts Sir Andrew Davis, who praises Werther as “absolutely one of Massenet’s most beautiful scores.” The conductor treasures this music’s elegance, which “portrays the torments of adolescent love in a very tender way. What I love about the piece so much is that it treats that kind of love very seriously. You know, Romeo and Juliet were kids, and Werther is a bit like that, with the title character’s all-consuming obsession.”
Sir Andrew would certainly agree with his colleague in Lyric’s production, Francisco Negrin, who declares succinctly, “I think Werther is a masterpiece.” Negrin (who previously gave Lyric brilliant stagings of Handel’s Rinaldo and Partenope) began his career more than 20 years ago with this work. His Chicago Werther is a co-production with San Francisco Opera, where it was first seen in 2010.
Negrin is astonished by Massenet’s subtlety in music that “gives such amazingly precise psychological information throughout.” Another reason the director so admires this piece is that, as in so many French operas, Werther has “this wonderful creation of colors and atmosphere and detail and melody that goes to the insides of the thought, rather than expressing one outward emotion that you get in the Italian repertoire.” And it’s not just the music that rivets Negrin’s attention: “The beauty of the text is amazing – worthy of a play, not just an opera libretto. Everything that is suggested in what they’re saying to each other, the sous-entendu [subtext], is unbelievably powerful and strong and aggressive.”
Even if the director’s research includes Goethe’s story as the opera’s original dramatic source, “I’m not staging Goethe at all in this Werther,” says Negrin. “And I’m not staging the libretto – I’m staging the way the music is interpreting the story. The libretto isn’t palpable to the audience, the stage indications aren’t in their hands, but the music is right in front of them in their hands. You have to stage the music.” In this production, the director is also “staging all the subtext rather than the obvious things. It makes everything much deeper, much more psychologically true, and makes the structure better.” In Negrin’s vision of the opera, “the story has an arc that builds up slowly and logically for each character.”
The opera is entitled Werther, but Negrin emphasizes that “our hearts need to be engaged by Charlotte. I think the story is about her – a young girl trying to do the right thing, who has some possibilities presented to her, and has a choice. She starts dreaming about other things she could have had. By the time she realizes that, it’s too late. I think that's the emotion that we need to be going through. That’s the tragedy. The humanity of this story is about people making mistakes, like all of us – not knowing what to do with the opportunities we’re offered.”
Audiences can expect to be profoundly moved by an opera Polenzani describes as “a gripping glimpse of an incredibly tortured soul.” For the tenor, it’s also a work of art that brings to life the question, “Haven’t you ever thought someone was right for you but have no possibility of getting near them?” Werther, Polenzani declares, would appeal to all who relish “watching real-life drama unfold in front of them – a drama they can touch with their memories and their own experiences.”
On the Record
Roger Pines, dramaturg at Lyric Opera, recommends these performances.
Villazon, Koch, Nakamura, Iversen; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, cond. Pappano (Deutsche Grammophon)
Kraus,Troyanos, Barbaux, Manuguerra; London Philharmonic, cond. Plasson (EMI Classics)
Gedda, de los Angeles, Mesplé, Soyer; Orchestre de Paris, cond. Plasson (EMI Classics)
Carreras, von Stade, Buchanan, Allen; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, cond. C. Davis (Philips)
Sung in English
Brecknock, Baker, Roberts, Wheatley; English National Opera, cond. Mackerras (Chandos)
Of special historical interest
Thill, Vallin, Féraldy, Rocque; Opéra Comique (Paris), cond. Cohen (EMI Great Recordings of the Century)
Kaufmann, Koch, Tézier, Gillet; Opéra National de Paris, cond. Plasson, dir. Jacquot (Decca)
Title role in Massenet’s baritone version/ Concert performance
Hampson, Graham, Piau, Degout; Théâtre Capitole de Toulouse, cond. Plasson (Virgin Classics)
Suggestions for Further Reading
by James Harding, St. Martin’s Press, 1971.
Out-of-print, alas, but eminently worth seeking out. There is comparatively limited material on Massenet in English, but at least we have this authoritative biography. The composer’s unique character – highly strung, desperately eager to please, passionately devoted to his profession – comes vividly to life throughout.
Massenet: A Chronicle of His Life and Times
by Demar Irvine, Amadeus Press, 2003.
An immense amount of valuable information related to the chronology of his career and the circumstances of each of his many operas’ premieres. Synopses of each opera are included, which is especially helpful in investigating the composer’s many unfamiliar stage works.
by Jules Massenet, Bakhsh Press, 2007, or Small Maynard & Company, 1980. Some of the anecdotes should be considered suspect, but the composer’s charm emerges on every page.