Florida Grand Opera closed its 78th season on May 11 with a beautifully sung, attractively presented mounting of Jules Massenet’s Werther, which many scholars of French opera consider to be the composer’s masterpiece.
The opera, based on Goethe’s breakthrough novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, tells the story of a young poet who falls desperately in love with a woman he can’t have, which leads to his suicide. The intensely Romantic subject matter brought out all of Massenet’s skill for sweet melodies and effective orchestration, and the FGO cast delivered it most effectively.
This was FGO’s own production, and it was distinguished by a clever, minimalist set by Howard Baumgarten in which the scrim and edging of the set pieces were covered with Goethe’s handwriting from the original holograph of his 1749 novel; the intricacy of his old-fashioned German secretarial hand added a good deal of visual interest. A single tree whose leaves were pages of a book that gently fell from time to time (perhaps unintentionally) was, because of its starkness amid the rest of the set that suggested rooms rather than depicted them, a subtle, elegant framing device for the action.
Baumgarten’s lighting and projections, except for the opening, tended to cool blues and grays and darkened as the opera went on, giving the work a sense of melancholy but also one of romance, especially in the “Clair de lune” scene in Act I. Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes were straightforward mid-18th century, and looked lovely.
While Massenet’s score is ultimately second-rate because he doesn’t have the melodic power of contemporaries such as Verdi and Puccini, Werther still requires singers who can present it with the requisite Romantic richness, and give this material everything they can.
As Werther, tenor Dimitri Pittas was everything you want in this character: A voice with a thrilling, powerful sound that never tired, and that sounded entirely persuasive when belting the highest notes in his register when Werther was most in extremis. He came off in his acting as a man for whom there was no turning back once he had lighted on a woman who could be the love of his life, and that lent a certain fanaticism to his personality that made his last shocking act believable.
Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, as Charlotte, the conflicted object of Werther’s ardor, was excellent in this role, with a very attractive dark coloring to her voice that added pathos to her singing. This was particularly evident in her “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes” in Act III, which began in this production with her on the floor, letters from Werther in a half-circle in front of her.
Mack expertly conveyed Charlotte’s anguish over her situation, pushing him away but only with evident struggle. Something about the overall trained polish of Mack’s voice, which is big and smooth over its whole compass, made her character whole as well; she and Pittas had admirable chemistry, and they looked cinematically good as a couple, a fortunate mix of physical gifts and compelling musical artistry.
Soprano Evan Kardon, whose characterful voice made her a bright spot as Amor in FGO’s Orfeo ed Euridice a season ago, was equally attractive as Sophie, Charlotte’s younger sister, with an evident crush on Werther that he does nothing to acknowledge. It’s a pleasure to hear her take on this music so nimbly and with such personality; she was persuasive, too, in her acting, without having to resort to overwrought histrionics when she is rejected.
The baritone Benjamin Dickerson was a fine Albert, restrained in his discomfort over Werther’s passion for his wife and her evident ambivalence. He has a mature-sounding, full instrument that like Mack’s has a roundness in every register, making him easy to listen to.
These four singers were shrewdly cast: all with distinctive voices, all at the same stage of life; a little older than Goethe’s characters, perhaps, but still plenty young and pretty enough to make the story plausible. The story was no less satisfying for three subsidiary characters, starting with the fine bass-baritone Jake Gardner as the bailiff, Charlotte and Sophie’s father. He has a strong, authoritative voice that instantly commanded the attention of the relatively large audience at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.
Two other members of the FGO Studio along with Kardon and Dickerson sang the roles of the bibulous Schmidt (tenor Dominick Corbacio) and Johann (bass-baritone Rafael Porto). Both singers tore into these figures of comic relief with gusto, and sang exuberantly and well. (Two further Studio singers, baritone Sean Galligan as Brühlmann and mezzo Mariya Kaganskaya as Kätchen, were on stage for only two lines.)
The children at the beginning of the opera and offstage at its end were suitably squirrelly, and effective in their singing of the Christmas carol that opens and closes the opera. Massenet’s carol is not a good piece of music, unfortunately, which makes its return in the final pages of the show jarring rather than thrilling and poignant through its morbid contrast with Werther’s self-annihilation. (The children, uncredited in the program, were Max Leighton, Kirstyn Agra Lowry, Mia Martinez, Dhilani Premaratne, Fernando Julian Pupo and Pablo Fernando Pupo.)
Lawrence Edelson’s direction was clear and efficient, mostly keeping peak emotional moments in the center of the stage, and focusing it so that there was only one couple up there. Conductor Joseph Mechavich proved to be an ideal accompanist for his singers, and the FGO orchestra sounded splendid; whatever his weaknesses as a melodist and dramatist, Massenet was a canny orchestrator, and the musicians filled the auditorium with reams of plush sound.
FGO’s scheduling of this opera was a wise choice for ease of production and effective employment of young Studio singers. This was a fresh-voiced, very handsome presentation — one that other companies surely will want to rent — of this highly professional late 19th-century opera with a story that’s easy to understand and a score that goes down easy and presents no problems. For sheer consistency of fine singing across the cast, it’s one of the better FGO productions in recent years, and made a lovely ending to the season.
Florida Grand Opera’s 2019-20 season will feature four operas: Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Nov. 16-Dec. 7); Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Jan. 18-Feb. 1); Verdi’s Rigoletto (March 28-May 2); and a rarity, Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage; April 18-26), by the Italian composer Domenico Cimarosa, a contemporary of Mozart. For more information, call 800-741-1010 or visit www.fgo.org.
Editor’s note: The posting of this review was delayed by technical difficulties.