The “Simon Boccanegra” performance we heard at Lyric Opera Of Chicago over Veterans Day Weekend had occurred on a Friday night. That night had been the final performance of the “Simon Boccanegra” run.
On Sunday of the same weekend, we attended a matinee performance of Lyric Opera Of Chicago’s presentation of Jules Massenet’s “Werther”. That afternoon’s had been the first in a run of “Werther” performances that ended earlier this month.
The conductor for “Werther” was, once again, Andrew Davis. Davis had single-handedly prevented “Simon Boccanegra” from coming to life, but he was nowhere near as lethal in “Werther”.
The score of “Werther” practically plays itself (“Werther” is the only Massenet opera of which this may be said). I have never heard a conductor fail in the work.
French nationality and French sensitivities are not requirements for succeeding on the “Werther” podium. As evidenced by numerous fine studio recordings, musicians of several nationalities have conducted worthy readings of the opera. English conductors have triumphed in “Werther” (Colin Davis), as have Italian conductors (Riccardo Chailly), Russian conductors (Vladimir Jurowski), American conductors (Kent Nagano), Czech conductors (Libor Pesek)—and countless French conductors, good and bad.
Only German conductors seem never to go near the piece. Although the opera’s first performance was in Vienna, the perception in German-speaking lands is that Massenet’s opera is more sugary confection than serious adaptation of Goethe—which, no doubt, is why German conductors have long ignored the work.
In Chicago, Davis was not actually good . . . but he was not destructive and he was not counterproductive. He did not kill the opera.
An ideal “Werther” conductor will offer clarity and elegance, and will personify the uniquely-French quality of objectivity: an objectivity that, peculiarly, suggests both utter indifference and underlying passion. An ideal “Werther” conductor will beguile the ear, bringing out Massenet’s bewitching orchestration and subtle-but-luscious harmonic scheme. An ideal “Werther” conductor will rise to the required dramatic outbursts of Acts III and IV without making those moments seem pasted-on, and not part of the whole.
Davis was not an ideal “Werther” conductor. He had the orchestra play the notes, and left it at that. It was the kind of performance one might hear in Düsseldorf under a house conductor: serviceable orchestra, serviceable leadership, distinction nowhere in evidence.
The Werther was Matthew Polenzani, who gave a finished and carefully-considered interpretation of the role. Polenzani’s acting was convincing. The role was congenial for his voice. He had thought long and hard about the role—or been very dutifully directed.
I was not moved once. Polenzani’s instrument is not sufficiently unique to carry a star role, and he has little stage presence. A very hard-working artist, Polenzani is a singer designed for secondary parts. He goes through all the motions with great dedication and commitment, but he lacks the unique timbre, sheer glamour of sound and individual artistry necessary for major roles in major houses.
The Charlotte was Sophie Koch, whom I disliked. Koch has sung Charlotte at the Paris Opera and at Covent Garden, establishing that others view Koch as a viable Charlotte. I found Koch’s voice thin and acidic—and of garden-variety quality. I thought her characterization was studied and artificial. It is possible we caught Koch on a bad day (many singers are not at their best for matinee performances). It is also possible that Koch is yet one more in a long line of undistinguished post-war French singers briefly taken up by the world’s major houses—and soon abandoned.
The Sophie and Albert were apprentice-level artists.
Given that the Chicago “Werther” was a new production (Chicago’s “Werther” was a co-production with San Francisco Opera, where the production had premiered in 2010), the casting was unimpressive if not unsatisfactory.
The physical production was not good.
The Werther remained in a small space at the bottom of a multi-level set while the action played out above and behind him. The audience was to believe that the story occurred in Werther’s imagination: others impersonated him, miming most scenes in which Werther was required to participate in the action, while Werther remained in his cubbyhole at the bottom of the designer’s frame, holding front and center stage.
The focus shifted in Acts III and IV: the climactic encounter between Werther and Charlotte was presented as Charlotte’s dream.
All of this rendered the opera nonsense. Did not the practice of staging an opera as someone’s dream or hallucination, always an unimaginative and tiresome device, go out of fashion by the late 1970s?
Stainless steel was the prevailing visual motif of an extremely unattractive and cheap-looking production. Numerous projections and videos were used, none of which contributed to the “look” of the production.
I doubt anyone in the auditorium took the production seriously, and I suspect the production will not be revived with any frequency.
In February, Minnesota Opera had offered a new production of “Werther”. James Valenti’s Werther had been superior to Polenzani’s simply because Valenti possessed the better instrument, Roxana Constantinescu’s miscast Charlotte might have sung Koch’s off the stage, and Christoph Campestrini’s light-but-elegant conducting had been far more stylish and idiomatic than Davis’s time-beating. Even the Minnesota Opera physical production, a silly Industrial Age “Werther”, had been more handsome and less ridiculous than what Lyric Opera Of Chicago presented.
My parents say they have experienced one excellent “Werther”, and only one—and from an unexpected source.
My parents caught the 1986 New York City Opera production when it was new. That production had featured lauded designs by Thierry Bosquet and stage direction by Lofti Mansouri. Mansouri’s direction, very conservative, had fully respected the period, and been accounted a success by most observers.
Jerry Hadley had sung Werther, and the greatly-undervalued Sergiu Comissiona had conducted the score.
My parents say that 1986 production had been an exceedingly beautiful “Werther”, and the finest thing they ever encountered at New York City Opera.
Of Chicago’s “Werther”, my father offered, long before the applause had died down: “Let there be no more of this.”