Love is the Noblest of Sufferings in Washington National Opera’s “Werther”

“Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing; a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Massenet’s Werther exists in seemingly two states: ecstasy or despair and the score builds upon these emotions. From the first act to the fourth, the cast intensifies these two emotions to their utmost. Although the libretto appears over-dramatic, even maudlin at moments, the opera is a look within the delirious world of Werther and his intensifying feelings for Charlotte. The Washington National Opera presented this powerful work Monday evening with visual grace and inspired musicality.

Francesco Meli as Werther. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Francesco Meli as Werther. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Chris Alexander’s (Director) vision positions Werther as the emotional tempest that affects every member of the family. The production is set in the American 1920’s which as Andrew Foster-Williams (Albert) pointed out in the post-show Q&A, “represents a similar contradiction in popular thought to the time in which the story is originally set.” Conservative ideals were in direct opposition to those who pursued romantic and liberal interests. Francesco Meli (Werther) wears the mantle of those romantic ideals well. Meli performed passionately with Sonia Ganassi (Charlotte.) His third act aria “Pourquoi me réveiller” was full of pain and tender remorse for the life that he imagined with Charlotte. Similarly, Ganassi shared her own heartbreaking moment with Emily Albrink (Sophie) during the famous “Va, laisse couler mes larmes.”

Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte and Andrew Foster-Williams as Albert. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte and Andrew Foster-Williams as Albert. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Ganassi and Meli made the most of the moments they shared on stage, especially during orchestral interludes. The stage design by Tony Award-winner Michael Yeargan provided ample opportunities for interaction even without singing.  When Charlotte and Werther timidly held hands in front of a moonlit backdrop of a wheat field bending in the wind their burgeoning love affair was framed by Yeargan’s skillful design.

One element that makes the WNO production so special are the strong performances by both Albrink and Foster-Williams. It is obvious that their lives are also forever altered by Werther’s presence and his obsessive love of Charlotte. Albrink’s “Du gai soleil” was sweetly sung without ever coming across as saccharine or cloying. Conversely, Foster-Williams’ bitterness strengthened act to act leading to his enraged final interactions with Ganassi. Performances from Julien Robbins (Le Bailli), Tim Augustin (Schmidt), Jason Buckwalter (Brühlmann), and Kenneth Kellogg (Johann) added much-needed levity to the drama. The Washington National Opera Children’s Chorus, under the direction of Michelle Kunz, was absolutely seraphic.

(l-r) -- Emily Albrink as Sophie and Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte. Photo by Scott Suchman.
(l-r) — Emily Albrink as Sophie and Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Unfortunately, some audience members did not connect with the drama as much as others. There were audible snickers in throughout the fourth act which both Meli and Ganassi asked about in the post-show Q&A. It seems that the audience was not prepared for Werther to have such an extended death scene. Besides the tittering audience members, the fourth act was beautifully sung and the orchestra buoyed their sound to the very end. Werther is the final production of WNO’s 2011-2012 season. Other performances are May 17, 19, 22, 25, and 27. Visit WNO’s website for complete production details, casting information, and artist biographies. David and Alice Rubenstein are the Presenting Underwriters of WNO.

Photo by Scott Suchman 

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