San Francisco Opera's Werther

Making our way over to the opera house after the first day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Penelope and I were in a "and now for something totally different" mood as we caught the final performance of SFO's Werther at the War Memorial. Massenset, and French opera in general, don't excite me so I would have skipped this one entirely had I not read some interesting things about the production it by people whose opinions I generally trust, regardless of the strong cast. It seemed apart from the upcoming Makropulos Case, there may be something really interesting unfolding on the stage with this sorrowful tale of unrequited love.

It did have some interesting elements and was indeed reminiscent of the good old days of the Rosenberg era in many regards, but this co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago left me scratching my head in more than a few spots so permit me to write about the music first.

Emmanuel Villaume drew one of the richest, most luxuriant performances I've heard from this orchestra in quite some time, perhaps not heard since the Rosenkavalier led by Runnicles of a few years back. The balances were superb and musically the high points shimmered with clarity and precision. This is one of the benefits of attending the final performance instead of the first- everything is in place by now and it's all about making it gleam- and on this it certainly did.

Ramon Vargas' Werther started off somewhere in the rough but found his way quickly, delivering the gorgeous tenor people have come to expect of him yet to me through most of the evening he always seemed to stop just short of going for the big note at the end, as if he wanted to save something. Turns out that was precisely the case, for when Vargas finally did give it all, delivering a knockout performance of ""Pourquoi me reveiller" during the final moment when he did decide to go for it all it seemed something tore slightly in his voice and for the remainder of the night he sounded noticeably strained.

Alice Coote's Charlotte was well-sung but she doesn't do much for me I'm afraid. I was one of the many people truly impressed by her performance here in 2002's Alcina years ago, but as in 2008's Idomeneo, I'm indifferent to her voice.

On the other hand, I found Heidi Stober's Sophie to be consistently glorious to listen to and watch onstage. This is the first time I've heard her and I liked her so much I'm going to try to catch one the upcoming performances of the Marriage of Figaro when she takes over as Susanna after Danielle de Niese departs.

The rest of the cast were fine in voice but largely lacked stage presence resulting in impressions varying from serviceable to barely noticeable amid a set and staging that made it it difficult to pay attention to what was going on. This is one production where, like the man who was seated next to us seeing it for the second time suggested, perhaps it was best to close one's eyes and just listen.

Francisco Negrin and Louis Desire's production certainly has some good ideas which work extremely well in some scenes but for every successful moment there's also puzzle to figure out that pulled me from the narrative to the extent I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on, causing me to lose the thread of what was happening onstage. The metal-encased trees, with their foliage marking the passage of time, were nice done, but had I not read in the program the metal box surrounding the stage was meant to represent that same sort of man-made, hard, unyielding encasement was also meant to represent the state of the characters lives I wouldn't have seen it. What I did see was a constant, painful glare as the light reflected off the metal into the eyes of the audience.

The 2nd and 3rd Werthers and Charlottes were largely unnecessary, more often than not creating distractions within scenes except for one perfect execution of their use during Werther's death. This scene is brilliantly staged, for in place of the usual, where we get to watch the expiring hero or heroine deliver a monumental aria as they die, Werther appears as a spirit over his body, enabling him to sing his dying thoughts to the audience in a way that makes complete dramatic sense without creating the usual disconnect between the action and the libretto which are almost universal in how these these scenes are usually staged. Kudos for that Mr. Negrin- very well done. One the other hand, after the interlude when Charlotte bids goodnight to Albert instead of Werther, that's just plain wrong and confusing. It renders the following duet incomprehensible from a dramatic standpoint. Same with the letter scene, which has Albert onstage interacting with Charlotte while she reading Werther's letter, changing the meaning of the scene which to me, undermines the story's resolution from her perspective.

The costumes by Christopher Verdosci were too much of the same color, making everyone look more or less similar and indistinguishable, even from row T of the orchestra. The lighting by Duane Schuler was the least impressive I've seen in this particular house in years.