Massenet fans have been unusually well-provided for this season, beginning in September with Odyssey Opera’s local premiere of the composer’s grand opera “Le Cid.” And on Friday, Boston Lyric Opera opened its new staging of “Werther,” perhaps the best-loved Massenet opera of them all.
The French composer was clearly stacking the deck when he chose Goethe’s novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther” as the basis of an opera. After its publication in 1774, this story of a poet wracked by his impossible love for a woman pledged in marriage to another, touched off a sensation. So-called Werther Fever — the, er, Pottermania of its day — spread well beyond Germany. Napoleon brought a copy of the novel into battle with him, and the book was even said to have touched off a wave of suicides in the style of its central character.
In short, the novel helped author a new myth of heroic interiority, one in which a poet’s soul is arrayed against the cruel conventions of a philistine world. The Romantic imagination of course did not let this myth go, and over a century later, Massenet could still rely on its contours to animate his lavishly opulent score — even if the opera inevitably courts a certain sentimentality that makes it feel consonant with the bourgeois world its title character disdains.
In her serviceable new production for BLO, director Crystal Manich has rather harmlessly updated the setting from 18th-century Germany to interwar Paris. More impactful is the director’s impulse to further emphasize Werther’s centrality by framing the entire work through the prism of his own subjectivity.
The tragic hero, in other words, is always present onstage, even in the scenes where he does not sing. And the spare scenery, made up of three planes, becomes quite literally a screen for Werther’s own projections as he wanders inside a world of fantasy, memory, and obsession. And so we watch repeating footage (by video designer Greg Emetaz) of Charlotte brushing out her tresses by a window, or of her wedding veil being fatefully lifted. A program note describes this Werther as an “unreliable narrator” and we are invited to ponder whether his love has distorted his sense of the reality around him. But what great love worthy of the name does not?
Friday’s cast acquitted itself well, and the singing seemed to grow generally stronger as the night progressed. BLO had been thrown a curveball when Joseph Kaiser, originally cast in the title role, was forced to withdraw due to back surgery. But Alex Richardson has stepped into the demanding role, and on Friday night he managed to hold the stage with a warm and flexible tenor in a performance that was vocally fluid if not quite dramatically at ease. This exposed staging also gives Richardson no reprieve. What’s more, just as the opera begins we are shown Werther contemplating his own suicide. The problem with this gambit is that it trades on an emotional currency the characters have not yet earned.
Sandra Piques Eddy delivers a sympathetic and well-sung Charlotte, conveying her character’s increasing anguish as she is torn between her pledge to honor her mother’s deathbed wish and her sincere love for Werther. As Charlotte’s sister Sophie, Rachele Gilmore was compelling in her aria “Du Gai Soleil.” John Hancock sang a warmly expansive Albert. David McFerrin, Jon Jurgens, and James Demler excelled in smaller roles.
In the pit BLO music director David Angus had the orchestra sounding stronger than it has in some time, especially in the lower strings, and Annie Rabbat deftly floated the score’s numerous violin solos. This performance also boasted some extra bars of music for Werther and Charlotte that Angus discovered when viewing an online version of the manuscript of the orchestral score. BLO could find no other record of these bars having been sung in other performances, and it deserves credit for this feat of musicological detective work.
Big changes are also afoot for this company behind the scenes. “Werther” is BLO’s penultimate staging at the Shubert Theatre, as it will be seeking its fortunes elsewhere after its “Merry Widow,” which opens April 29. The as-yet-unannounced next chapter of temporary venues will be crucial for BLO. There will of course be risk associated with a nomadic next season, but after many years of trying valiantly to make opera thrive in a space that’s not conducive to it, this is also a moment of exciting opportunity.
BOSTON LYRIC OPERA
David Angus, conductor
At Shubert Theatre, March 11 (runs through March 20)