‘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

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted changes to The City's streets including Slow Streets closures to increase open space access and the Shared Spaces program, which allows businesses to use public right-of-ways for dining, retail and services. (Examiner illustration)
COVID is reshaping the streets of San Francisco

Walk down Page Street, which is closed to thru-traffic, and you might… Continue reading

At a rally in February, Monthanus Ratanapakdee, left, and Eric Lawson remember Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who died after he was pushed to the pavement in San Francisco. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Examiner file photo)
The criminal justice system can’t fix what’s wrong in our community

My 87-year-old mother walks gingerly, slowly, deliberately, one step in front of… Continue reading

Superintendent Vincent Matthews said some students and families who want to return will not be able to do so at this time. “We truly wish we could reopen schools for everyone,” he said. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFUSD sets April reopening date after reaching tentative agreement with teachers union

San Francisco Unified School District has set April 12 as its reopening… Continue reading

José Victor Luna and Maria Anabella Ochoa, who cite health reasons for continuing distance learning, say they have been enjoying walking in Golden Gate Park with their daughters Jazmin, a first grader, and Jessica, a third grader. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Some SFUSD families prefer distance learning

Health issues, classroom uncertainties among reasons for staying home

Most Read