Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Werther III

On Sunday afternoon, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to attend Minnesota Opera’s presentation of Massenet’s four-act opera, “Werther”.

As a general rule, Minnesota Opera (for reasons of cost) engages major singers only for one production each season—and “Werther” was this season’s Minnesota Opera presentation in which international-level singers had been engaged: American tenor James Valenti sang Werther; and Romanian mezzo soprano Roxana Constantinescu sang Charlotte. Both singers have appeared with Minnesota Opera in previous seasons.

Valenti is one of fewer than ten “bankable” tenors in opera today. He possesses a large, malleable voice, with more than a little color; his production is smooth and he has reliable, bell-like top notes that explain why he is much in demand these days. Valenti’s voice is suited to the Italian repertory—his voice has the tinctura and “ping” so often associated with the music of Verdi and Puccini—and most of his career thus far has been devoted to roles in Italian operas.

Despite appearances in most of the major European houses, Valenti remains in the early stages of an international career; he is not yet a fully-formed artist. He is stiff and unnatural onstage—and sometimes even lifeless. He has a tendency to sing more loudly than necessary, and he has not yet learned how to shade a performance or how to make a phrase uniquely his own.

The Minnesota Opera “Werther”, a new production, was mounted specifically for Valenti—and it was Valenti’s first “Werther” production in which he had enjoyed an extended rehearsal period. Prior to the run of performances in Saint Paul, Valenti had sung the role of Werther in concert and, covering the part at the Paris Opera, he had had to go on at short notice as a substitute for an indisposed Jonas Kaufmann.

I enjoyed Valenti’s performance immensely, but he is not yet a Werther for the ages. He has not internalized the role or the music; his mastery of the text was non-existent. What Twin Cities audiences got was an unsubtle, loudly-vocalized portrayal by a tenor with a first-class instrument, an artist that needs to perform the role twenty or forty more times before the role becomes his own. Five years from now, Valenti may very well be a Werther to die for (it is my understanding that Valenti intends to make the role a cornerstone of his repertory); at present, Valenti’s Werther is very much a work in progress.

Constantinescu was contracted by the Wiener Staatsoper at the very beginning of her career, a sure sign of the quality of her voice and artistry, and sang a wide variety of roles at the house for three seasons as a member of the resident ensemble. (Constantinescu continues to appear with the Wiener Staatsoper as a guest artist.) Her operatic roles to date have centered around Mozart, Rossini and the French repertory—although Constantinescu is considered, above all, to be a concert singer specializing in the music of Bach, an endeavor to which she devotes half her schedule.

Minnesota Opera’s “Werther” was Constantinescu’s first Charlotte. She was very fine—but she did absolutely nothing memorable. Everything was very generalized, as if Constantinescu had realized during the rehearsal period that Charlotte was not a congenial role for her and that she would sing the role cleanly and go through the stage blocking dutifully—and afterward drop the role permanently from her repertory.

Constantinescu possesses a fine voice, but the voice is not sufficiently unique at present to carry her to stardom. The voice would have to possess more color and more weight for Constantinescu to enjoy a high-profile career—and that, perhaps, may come with time. Constantinescu may be wise to devote so much of her current schedule to Bach concerts, in which color and weight are not as vitally important as in 19th-Century stage repertory.

The conductor of the Minnesota Opera “Werther” was Christoph Campestrini, an Austrian who had received his musical education at Juilliard. Given that Minnesota Opera uses what must be termed a “pick-up” ensemble in the pit, I thought Camprestrini was quite good—and I thought the results he obtained from the orchestra were quite good, too.

Musically, the Minnesota Opera “Werther” was as fine an offering as one may expect from a small regional company. Any opera-lover would be happy to encounter such a high-level musical performance anywhere. In ten years on the East Coast, I never managed to encounter anything as fine as Sunday’s “Werther” from the regional companies in Philadelphia, Washington or Boston.

The physical production was another matter.

Minnesota Opera’s “Werther” was set in the late 19th Century. Such a setting made nonsense of Goethe’s “Werther” as well as Massenet’s “Werther”, both of which are steeped in the Sturm und Drang movement of the 1770s, a movement that was to end no later than 1785.

A giant 1890s industrial landscape permanently occupied the full length and width of the rear of the Saint Paul stage, complete with two levels of wrought-iron railings that extended on both sides toward the front of the stage. In front of the industrial landscape was rolled out a series of small stage platforms, each destined to be dwarfed by the grim and gaunt industrial wasteland that overwhelmed everything else on stage.

What have the sorrows of young Werther to do with The Industrial Age? And what is the connection between the Sturm und Drang movement and industrialization? The answers to those questions are: “absolutely nothing”; and “there is none”.

The updating of the story was profoundly unthinking on the part of director and designer—and the result was jarring if not preposterous for informed members of the audience. Young men in the 1890s did not carry on as they had in the brief Sturm und Drang period of the 1770s; under such circumstances, for the director and designer to have updated the story made no sense. Further, it was foolish for the director and designer to have inserted an industrialization component into Goethe’s poetic tale. This grievous misstep suggested that both director and designer totally failed to comprehend the letter and spirit of a great and profound and timeless work of art.

New York-based Allen Moyer, perhaps best known for his Broadway work on “Grey Gardens”, was the “Werther” designer. Not only were Moyer’s “Werther” designs inapt, they were cheap-looking as well. We practically giggled each time a new stage platform appeared (but our giggles were short-lived, since the platforms were quickly devoured by the mammoth industrial vision that hulked over the stage).

New York-based Kevin Newbury was the “Werther” stage director. I think Newbury may be in the wrong line of work, because I cannot remember the last time I witnessed a stage presentation so feebly directed. What we observed onstage Sunday afternoon was hackwork pure and simple: high-school stage blocking coupled with silent-screen acting gestures.

Minnesota Opera engages Newbury over and over—he is scheduled to direct two Minnesota Opera productions next season, an alarming prospect—and I am told that his engagements by the company are the result of two factors: he is very easy to work with; and his fees are low.

Myself, I would prefer that the company select stage directors based upon other considerations . . . such as talent.


  1. Hey, reading this got me thinking... of the plausibility of staging Werther in ... Provo, UT! The Mormon culture seems still quite stuck in the proper turn of the century period (a gal can really draw a lot of unfriendly eyes just by turning up in church wearing pants!)... But then I remember that though their scriptures prohibited polyandry both Joe Smith and Brigham Young practiced it (they had a few wives in common, according to LDS' own site)... so I guess that wouldn't work after all. Perhaps in some other tightly laced cult? :o)

    Sorry to hear you're stuck with the director for more operas in the future. The SDO had a ballet dude direct their Salome this past month. He went minimalistic and it worked really well. Quite refreshing after all the traditional staging we usually have.

    THanks for good read as usual, Andrew. Hope your weekend has started well! :oD

  2. I find it interesting that, in our day and age, the music text is supposed to be scrupulously observed while the stage scenario may be modified without limit. It is one of the peculiarities of our time.

    The roots of this ridiculous state of affairs may be traced back to the 1951 Bayreuth Ring directed by Wieland Wagner. From that influential production, a thousand flowers blossomed—but, inevitably, decadence set in within a quarter century, and all kinds of tommyrot may now be seen everywhere.

    It is very hard, these days, to take opera as a serious art form.