Another Look at SF Opera's Werther

SF Opera's Werther Act II, photo by Cory Weaver * Notes *
The San Francisco Opera's penultimate performance of Werther this season was held yesterday evening. From balcony standing room, the balances between the singers and the orchestra were better. Emmanuel Villaume did keep the orchestra together, the sound was gleaming and rich. The chorus of children was also lovely.

It was apparent that all the singers have such beautiful voices, from Susannah Biller in the tiny role of Kätchen, to the title role sung by Ramón Vargas. Perhaps both Vargas and Alice Coote (Charlotte) are more compelling in other repertoire, however they nonetheless were very pleasant to hear.

The set does look rather different from the balcony, many of the projections are lost, but one can see the shadows of the tree branches on the ground in the last scene. The many staircases are also more evident from above. The production is definitely weird and does not follow Goethe's text in a literal sense. This said, I did find the whole thing strangely attractive. Perhaps because I do not care for this novella in the first place, the departures from it did not bother me.

* Tattling * 
The balcony looked fairly full, but I was offered a seat more than once. Unfortunately, since there were empty seats, the audience felt comfortable getting up and moving over during the Act III overture. There was some talking and watch alarms. The most disruptive moments were when people unwrapped their candies during key points in the music. No matter how quiet one tries to be, cellophane always seems to be very loud, and doing this slowly just drags out the noise over a longer period of time. I was especially annoyed when this happened during the Letter Aria.

SF Opera's Werther

Vargas-sf-opera-werther * Notes *
Werther, in a brand new production, opened yesterday evening at San Francisco Opera. The set, designed by Louis Désiré, involves a rather large platform with a grove of telephone poles meant to be trees, lots of stairs, a mountain of luggage, and a creepy basement downstage where Werther lives. Periodically one of two large rectangles would come down, suspended from the ceiling, to indicate the seasons. They seemed to be covered in cheap leaf-motive wallpaper or some chintzy seasonal cotton print. However, the lighting design, from Duane Schuler, pulled all these elements together. The overall effect was both curiously elegant and nightmarish. Francisco Negrin's direction seemed to concentrate on the psychology of Werther himself. The use of live video capture was restrained, and the doubles for Werther were intriguing. One appreciated that there were no projections or other distractions during the overtures.

Emmanuel Villaume conducted the orchestra, which sounded shimmery and full. The strings and harp glimmered, and the brass was warm. It was startling to hear the alto saxophone, but probably only because one is not accustomed to hearing it in opera. The design of the set may have caused the balance to be off on the ground level, and instead of being supported by the instruments, the singers were often overwhelmed. Perhaps it sounded better in the balcony.

Adlers Susannah Biller (Kätchen) and Austin Kness (Brühlmann) looked and sounded lovely in their small roles. Robert MacNeil and Bojan Kneževiċ were charming as Schmidt and Johann. Christian Van Horn, as Charlotte's father, the bailiff, sounded clear. Brian Mulligan was robust as Albert. Heidi Stober (Sophie) chirped and fluttered nicely. Alice Coote made for a vaguely boyish Charlotte, perhaps because of the way she carries her shoulders and neck. Coote has a pleasant, warm tone. Ramón Vargas likewise has a pretty sound, though I did find him more sympathetic in a role like Nemorino than the melodramatic Werther.

* Tattling * 
I had the pleasure of greeting the San Francisco Opera Music Director at intermission, and also managed to find many friends in the press room. The audience was fairly subdued. There was at least one watch alarm at 9pm, and some squeaking from either microphones or hearing aids. Several people commented about how weird the production was, mostly in a negative way. The production team was booed.

Werther Medallion Society Book Club Meeting

Werther Book Club, photo from Cory Weaver and San Francisco Opera The Last Chinese Unicorn wrote up this piece about this recent event in the Littlefield Intermezzo Lounge of the War Memorial Opera House, pictured left, photo from Cory Weaver and San Francisco Opera.

* Notes *
Tonight is the opening of Massenet's Werther (pronounced Vair-tair). This past Saturday before the final dress rehearsal, the Opera Tattler and I attended the first book club meeting organized by the SF Opera for its Medallion Society members to discuss Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers), the epistolary novel upon which the opera is based. We were surprised and delighted by the great turnout. Though most were grey-haired opera lovers, we did spot a few young people in their 20s. There was also a Goethe scholar in the mix who made some valuable contributions to the discussion. With this particular opera, because it is more of a psychological drama without an intricate plot, I found it very useful to revisit the literary text before watching the performance. It certainly helped make sense of the video element of the production. Here are some of the topics that we covered in the meeting:

* Albert (rational, responsible, stable) being the antithesis of Werther (emotional, maudlin, reckless)
* Jean-Jacques Rousseau & Romanticism
* Parallels between Werther and Faust
* Werther's descent into madness
* Werther fever and copycat suicides
* The role of Nature in the novel

As for the production itself...stay tuned for the Opera Tattler's review of the opening night show. My lips are tightly sealed!

* Tattling * 
Two young ladies with interesting head accessories came strolling in late. One even had the audacity to march up front and sit right next to the moderator. What a shameless lass!