‘Werther’ returns to SF, after 25 years

Such is the power of music that in spite of many obstacles, the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Jules Massenet’s 1892 “Werther” had some affecting moments at its premiere Wednesday.

In the 88-year history of the company — which has presented about 200 performances each of “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly” — this is only the sixth production of “Werther.” The last was in 1985, with Alfredo Kraus and Renata Scotto.

There are reasons why it’s rare, beginning with the work on which it’s based, Goethe’s 1774 “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

The novel, written as a series of letters, had an enormous influence on the formation of the romantic literary movement, but its bereft hero is difficult to root for two centuries after his predictable demise.

Boy loves girl, girl marries someone else, boy dies, girl is sorry — it’s been done many times, but usually with more ups and downs instead of nothing but downs.

Unlike Massenet’s powerful “Manon,” “Werther” reflects the novel’s enervated nature, along with providing a few beautiful melodies.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume led an exceptional orchestral performance Wednesday, with outstanding woodwinds, especially Janet Popesco Archibald’s English horn and James Dukey’s alto saxophone.

But, Francisco Negrin’s direction was puzzling. For instance, the heroine Charlotte reads Werther’s love letters to her husband instead of reading “alone at home on Christmas Eve.”

Other quaint and distracting actions included Sophie (the appealing Heidi Stober) aggressively stalking Werther, and the use of two body doubles for Werther in the final scene (adding up to three Werthers).

Louis Désiré’s production design is weird, with large screens displaying images of what, or rather who, Werther is thinking about. Large piles of boxes and abstract light projections, some looking like computer-download indicators and others showing houses in the air, also were confusing.

Meanwhile, the singers performed on a single platform that was elevated about 15 feet over Werther’s bed, in a configuration that clearly affected their sound.

“Werther” is a tenor’s opera and Ramón Vargas almost took charge of the first two acts that comprise the first part in San Francisco, where “we do everything with one intermission.”

His voice was beautiful and the phrasing correct, but volume and projection seemed insufficient in the orchestra section. Those listening from the balcony fared better.

Dramatically, not much can be done with two hours of sighing, pining and suffering.

Alice Coote’s Charlotte (replacing the originally scheduled Elina Garanca) was robust in voice and appearance, with power favored over beauty and delicacy. The house debut of Stober’s Sophie showed great promise.

Brian Mulligan sang Albert, newly married Adler Fellows Susannah Biller and Austin Kness appeared in smaller roles, as did Robert MacNeil and Bojan Knezevic.

OPERA REVIEW

Werther

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. today, Sept. 28 and Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Sept. 26
Tickets: $20 to $280
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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