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Opera review

A long-delayed “Werther” opens in Houston with fanfare and superb singing

Sat Jan 28, 2023 at 2:42 pm
By Steven Brown
Isabel Leonard and Matthew Polenzani in Houston Grand Opera’s “Werther.” Photo: Michael Bishop

The pandemic put the kibosh on Houston Grand Opera’s plan to stage Jules Massenet’s Werther for the company’s first time 40-plus years. As the world reopened, though, HGO regrouped — lining up a different cast and production — and Massenet’s tragic tale of doomed love finally returned to Wortham Theater Center on Friday.

As Massenet tells the story of hypersensitive Werther’s passion for a woman he can’t have, his score serves up flights of ardent melody, arresting cries of despair and evocative bits of tone-painting. Why, then, do companies stage Werther so rarely? 

No doubt the demands of the title role — which calls for a tenor who can bring it bel canto finesse as well as a semblance, at least, of dramatic-tenor intensity — account for at least part of it. 

Matthew Polenzani, facing that tall order Friday in his HGO debut, didn’t hit his stride until Act 2. As he did — and as mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard lavished her own warmth and abandon on the role of the youth’s adored Charlotte — HGO’s Werther finally caught fire.

In Werther’s poetic transports of Act 1 — rhapsodizing first about the village around him, later about Charlotte — Polenzani’s voice hadn’t found its footing. It tended to sound pressed toward the top, thin when quiet. Here and there, though, a deftly turned phrase or sturdy high note suggested that Polenzani might have more in store. Sure enough, he began to take command when Werther’s passion and despair boiled over. 

In “Un autre est son epoux,” where Werther’s frustration gives way to a vision of Charlotte as his sweetheart, Polenzani captured the excitement not only through ringing tones but the sheer rush of energy he put into Werther’s rush of words.

The thwarted lover’s meditation on suicide could hardly have been more different:  When Werther described death as simply raising a curtain and stepping past it, Polenzani barely whispered. But his voice swelled as Werther’s longing for deliverance took hold, rising to a vibrant, full-throated cry of “Père!”—meaning father, as in God.

The plaintive “Pourquoi me réveiller” built up to another big outpouring, but Polenzani heightened it by going in the opposite direction. On the first stanza’s climactic note — a high A-sharp — he began full-throttle but pulled back to a whisper. That was a vocally challenging gambit that few tenors attempt. It came across not as bel canto preening, but as a symbol — compressed into one note — of Werther’s crushed hopes.

Leonard, also making her HGO debut, brought to Charlotte an almost show-stealing impact. In Act 1, her lustrous singing and gracious demeanor helped show why Werther is so smitten. But Leonard really came into her own in Charlotte’s big scene in Act 3 — after Charlotte, struggling to remain faithful to the husband she doesn’t love, has ordered Werther away.

As Charlotte read letters from her despondent admirer, Leonard’s voice took on a little more weight, helping embody the scene’s foreboding. Even in the simple phrase “Ces lettres” — “the letters” — she made the sag of the vocal line exude melancholy.

Even greater heavy-heartedness radiated from Charlotte’s “Va! Laisse couler mes larmes!” — a brief, poignant meditation on the power of tears — thanks to the breadth and conviction of Leonard’s singing. And when Charlotte cried out to God for strength, Leonard’s voice welled up with a whole new fullness and fervor, matching every bit of the intensity of Polenzani’s Werther.

And as Werther’s death approached in Act 4, the glow of Leonard’s singing — as Charlotte finally confessed her love for him — contrasted powerfully with the fading half-voice of Polenzani’s Werther. 

Baritone Sean Michael Plumb, playing Charlotte’s husband, Albert, certainly made her lack of love for him plausible. In singing and demeanor alike, Plumb’s Albert was sturdy but stiff.

When Massenet and his librettists adapted Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther — a literary blockbuster of the 18th Century — they evidently thought the story’s Sturm und Drang would be too much for opera audiences. To offer relief, they greatly expanded the character of Sophie, Charlotte’s young sister, making her the personification of cheerfulness. Sometimes her bursts of jollity slow down the story — as do the antics of a pair of tipplers, Schmidt and Johann.

Ricardo Garcia and Cory McGee are comic relief as Schmidt and Johann in Houston Grand Opera’s “Werther.” Photo: Michael Bishop

Be that as it may, HGO’s performers of all three roles threw themselves into their parts. Soprano Jasmine Habersham’s Sophie was fresh-voiced and breezy. Tenor Ricardo Garcia as Schmidt and bass Cory McGee as Johann sang and cavorted. 

Rounding out the principals, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi made Charlotte’s and Sophie’s father, the Bailiff, a basically kindly paterfamilias — a neat contrast to his fluttery Bartolo in HGO’s current The Marriage of Figaro.

While the stark chords of Werther’s orchestral prelude give the audience a foretaste of the title character’s torments, conductor Robert Spano and the HGO Orchestra didn’t give them the bite that would’ve gotten the message across. 

Nevertheless, as the opera unfolded, the orchestra helped flesh out the story in sound — from the brassy fortissimos underlining Werther’s agonies to the bubbliness surrounding Sophie to the shiver of the hushed strings evoking the winter chill.

The deeper Werther and Charlotte fell into their emotional turmoil, the more compelling director Benoît Jacquot’s staging became. He and associate director Geneviève Dufour had a knack for finding the most potent moment to have a character sag in despair or even collapse to the floor. And in the lighter moments, they devised jovial antics for Schmidt and Johann as the duo romped with village children or just enjoyed their wine.

Designer Charles Edwards’s sets were decidedly austere. Act 1 offered just a bench and a wall with a not-very-verdant vine, despite Werther’s salute to the bewitching, flowery scene he beholds. But Edwards did create an eye-catching sequence to introduce the last act’s setting: Werther’s room. 

With the mortally wounded Werther already lying there when the curtain rose, the room began at the rear of the stage — where it must have been tucked behind the previous scene’s set — and slowly moved forward. The effect was cinematic, like a camera zeroing in on a crucial scene. Considering that Jacquot also directs films, maybe the idea came from him.

Werther runs through Feb. 10. houstongrandopera.org

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